Natta was born in Imperia, Italy, on February 26, 1903. At the age of twelve,he became interested in chemistry. Natta graduated from high school in 1919and began to study mathematics at the University of Genoa, but transferred tothe Polytechnic Institute of Milan to study chemical engineering. He received his doctorate in 1924 at the age of twenty and began his science career.
Natta rose through the ranks at the Polytechnic Institute as an instructor and was named professor of chemistry in 1927. He researched the structure of inorganic compounds and industrial catalysts with X-rays. In 1932, Natta learned of electron diffraction analysis from Hermann Staudinger (1881-1965) at theUniversity of Freiburg and began to use both X-rays and electron diffractionto investigate the structure of polymers. Over the next six years, Natta served as professor at the University of Rome, and as professor and director atthe Institute of General Chemistry at the University of Povia, the Instituteof Industrial Chemistry at the Turin Polytechnic Institute, and at the Industrial Chemistry Research Center at the University of Milan.
In1938, under the patronage of the Italian government, Natta headed the research team studying the production of synthetic rubber. The team was successfuland production of butadiene styrene rubber began during World War II. Nattaand his team went on to research catalysts and produce butadiene, formaldehyde, methanol, butyraldehyde, and various other alcohols. After World War II, Natta's research was underwritten by an Italian company named Montecatini. Hebegan researching polymers using petroleum as his raw material.
In 1952, Natta heard a lecture given by Karl Ziegler in which he described his procedure of preparing polyethylene by using resins with aluminum or titanium atoms as catalysts. The organometallic catalysts allowed long chain polyethylene to be formed with no side chains, which greatly increased its strength. Under a licensing agreement with Ziegler's Institute, Natta's company sentsome of their technicians to Ziegler for training. Making good use of their knowledge, he began to investigate the production of polypropylene. Propylenehas one more carbon atom than ethylene and is cheaper than ethylene. In fact,polypropylene, a byproduct of refining processes, was available in large quantities.
In 1954, Natta produced a new polypropylene with great durability, heat resistance, and tensile strength. The compound was somewhat of a surprise because Natta had expected a linear polymer rubber with a high molecular weight. Instead he had succeeded in making polypropylene that had all of the methyl groups on the same side of the carbon chain. This arrangement was called isotactic, a name proposed by Natta's wife. This new polymer polypropylene contained a degree of crystallinity that was much higher than expected. Eventually, Natta discovered that by controlling the organometallic catalysts he couldpredict the three-dimensional arrangement of the atoms in the polymer. Nattashared the 1963 Nobel Prize in chemistry with Karl Ziegler for their work with the catalysts. Today polypropylene is used in molded auto parts and appliances, as well as in textiles for carpets, ropes, and cables.
Eventually, Natta found a way to duplicate the polymerization process that occurs biologically. He was able to control stereochemistry so that optically active polymers could be prepared from optically inactive monomers. Natta's research with catalysts changed the way that polymers were developed and introduced a new class of high strength materials that outperformed metals. Natta developed Parkinson's disease later in his life. He died in Bergamo, Italy, on May 2, 1979, from surgical complications.