Announcing that Dr. Rowland, Mario Molina and Paul Crutzen had won the Nobel Prize in chemistry, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said that the researchers had “contributed to our salvation from a global environmental problem that could have catastrophic consequences.”
The award was centered around the seminal findings that Dr. Rowland and Molina had made during the mid 1970s concerning chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs.
The compounds — nontoxic and nonflammable — were known for their considerable stability, which had made them ideal as propellants in household products. They were also used as refrigerants in air conditioners and refrigerators.
Dr. Rowland and Molina discovered that it was the CFCs’ stability, however, that also allowed them to waft — one spray at a time — high into the atmosphere near the ozone layer.
It was up there, much closer to the sun, that the seemingly inert chemical turned destructive, eating Earth’s delicate shield against ultraviolet radiation.
Exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet rays, CFCs would break down and release chlorine. In turn, one chlorine atom would wipe out about 100,000 ozones. (Ozones are air particles composed of three oxygen atoms; the breathable air on earth is composed of two.)
The researchers’ principal discovery was that the CFCs were thinning the ozone layer, without which plants and animals could not live on Earth’s surface. Moreover, the process would continue to get worse: CFCs were so hardy that they could linger in the air for 100 years.
Arriving home from his lab at the University of California at Irvine, Dr. Rowland told his wife: “The work is going very well, but it looks like the end of the world.”
Dr. Rowland and Molina published their findings in the British journal Nature in 1974. Their work did not immediately catch on in the scientific community.
“It was met with a lot of silence at first,” Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences, said in an interview. “ It was so innovative and went way beyond what people were thinking about and working on.”
Aerosol company executives were quick to dismiss their research, fearing its implications on the multibillion-dollar industry’s bottom line. According to the Los Angeles Times, one manufacturer claimed that the criticism was “orchestrated by the Ministry of Disinformation of the KGB.”
By the late 1970s, a number of U.S. government agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, agreed to a ban on the use of CFCs in aerosols.
In 1985, British scientists announced that they had discovered a hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica. It was about the size of the contiguous United States. The revelation that a high concentration of chlorine was floating in the polar air largely validated Dr. Rowland and Molina’s theory that CFCs were the main culprit.
In 1987, their research inspired the Montreal Protocol, a worldwide pledge signed by 70 countries agreeing to phase out the production and usage of CFCs. Today, 196 countries are signatories, including the United States.
The work of Dr. Rowland and Molina “led to one of the world’s greatest environmental successes — the Montreal Protocol,” Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said in an interview. “It really saved the world from damaging UV rays. It did, I think, have a huge impact on atmospheric chemistry and also a huge humanitarian impact, as well.”
Frank Sherwood Rowland was born June 28, 1927, in Delaware, Ohio, where his father was a mathematics professor at Ohio Wesleyan University.
A precocious student, Dr. Rowland skipped grades in elementary school and graduated high school at 15. He attended Ohio Wesleyan before training as a Navy radar operator during World War II. After the war, he entered the University of Chicago as a chemistry graduate student.
He took classes from Nobel laureates Harold Urey and Enrico Fermi and was advised by Willard F. Libby, who received the 1960 Nobel Prize for pioneering the Carbon-14 dating process. Dr. Rowland received a doctorate in 1952, specializing in a nuclear chemistry.
He also was a gifted athlete. Standing 6-foot-5, Dr. Rowland played varsity basketball at Ohio Wesleyan and was a semi-professional baseball player for a Canadian team during his summers away from the University of Chicago.
Dr. Rowland joined the University of California at Irvine in 1964 as the first chairman of the chemistry department.
In the early 1970s, Dr. Rowland began to study the chemical make-up of the atmosphere and the ozone layer. In 1970, researcher Crutzen of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany, discovered that nitrogen-oxide particles naturally released from Earth’s soil affected the decomposition of the ozone layer.
Dr. Rowland and Molina, at the University of California at Irvine, built on that theory by testing what kind of impact man-made chemicals such as CFCs had on the atmosphere.
Dr. Rowland’s survivors include his wife of 59 years, Joan Lundberg Rowland of Corona Del Mar; two children; and two grandchildren.