L. Louis Hegedus

Born: April 13, 1941 | Budapest, HU
Died: Wednesday, May 24, 2017 | Pasadena, CA, US

L. Louis Hegedus grew up in Szolnok, Hungary. After completing the chemical engineering program of the Technical University of Budapest, he was recruited to work at the Research Institute for the Organic Chemical Industry, where he helped develop a polyester process. After touring Europe, Hegedus secured a job as a chemical engineer at Daimler-Benz in Mannheim, Germany. He was next accepted into the chemical engineering PhD program at University of California, Berkeley. He published seven papers from his dissertation and wrote the first book on catalyst poisoning. Hegedus next worked on the catalytic converter for General Motors, then accepted a job as a director of central research at W. R. Grace and Company. He was then recruited to be research vice president for North America at Elf Atochem. Hegedus has retired and founded his own consulting firm, and been a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Research Triangle Institute.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0810
No. of pages: 88
Minutes: 307

Interview Sessions

Hilary Domush and Jacqueline Boytim
5-6 December 2013
Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Abstract of Interview

L. Louis Hegedus grew up in Szolnok, Hungary, one of two sons. His father and brother were both chemical engineers, and his mother was a teacher. He received what he considers to be a broad and excellent education at the Verseghy Ferenc Gimnazium and passed the very long and difficult entrance exam to the chemical engineering program of the Technical University of Budapest. After graduation he was recruited to work at the Research Institute for the Organic Chemical Industry, where he worked on the development of a polyester process. After one year at the institute, Hegedus obtained a visa to tour Europe and ended up with a job as a chemical engineer at Daimler-Benz in Mannheim, Germany. Eventually his fiancée was able to join him, and they married. Having gained a proficiency in English, Hegedus was accepted into the chemical engineering PhD program at University of California, Berkeley; he wrote his dissertation on chemical reaction engineering with Eugene Petersen. He published many papers, seven from his dissertation, and wrote the first book on catalyst poisoning. Early computers required him to learn Fortran at Berkeley; he laughs to think of the meager computing power of those computers now. The Clean Air Act of 1970 had automobile manufacturers scrambling to design catalytic converters for all their cars, an enormous effort that Hegedus calls one of the largest privately-funded non-government research effort up to that time in history. Hegedus's work for General Motors during those years eventually led to his nomination to the National Academy of Engineering. He says General Motors hired a number of new graduates from top universities to work on the development of the catalytic converter with the thought that they did not know that it was impossible. Hegedus also thinks that the catalytic converter was one of the greatest technical successes of chemical technology ever. He next accepted a job as a director of central research at W. R. Grace and Company. Although he had moved gradually into management as a research vice president, he continued to stay close to technical research, to publish, and to attend conferences, staying part of the international scientific community. Legal and business problems mounted at Grace, however, and Hegedus was recruited to be research vice president for North America at Elf Atochem, the chemical branch of the French national oil company Elf Aquitaine. The company merged with Total and then spun off Arkema, a worldwide chemical company. Hegedus has retired from Arkema as senior vice president for research and development. In retirement, he founded his own consulting firm, as well as having been a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Research Triangle Institute. Hegedus discusses the balance between process and product research in chemical engineering, and the place of materials science in future work. From his perspective, the next exciting technology, already being worked on, is advanced batteries, which will lead to electric cars for all. Throughout his interview Hegedus evinces his love of and excitement about the challenges posed to chemical engineering. He is an amateur pilot, an area of his life that permits no risk, and he urges everyone to test drive the Tesla S. He has many publications, patents, and awards to his credit.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1964 Technical University of Budapest Dipl Ing Chemical Engineering
1972 University of California, Berkeley PhD Chemical Engineering

Professional Experience

Research Institute for the Organic Chemical Industry

1964 to 1965
Research Engineer, Petrochemical Process Research

Daimler-Benz AG,

1965 to 1968
Group Leader, Materials Testing

General Motors Research Laboratories

1972 to 1974
Associate Senior Research Engineer
1974 to 1975
Senior Research Engineer and Group Leader
1975 to 1980
Departmental Research Engineer, Catalysis Research

W.R. Grace & Company

1980 to 1984
Director, Inorganic Research
1984 to 1995
Vice President, Inorganic Research
1995 to 1996
Vice President, Corporate Technical Group

Elf Atochem

1996 to 2001
Vice President, Research and Development
2001 to 2006
Senior Vice President, Research and Development

Louis Hegedus, LLC

2006
President

RTI International

2010 to 2013
Distinguished Visiting Fellow

Honors

Year(s) Award
1978

Chemical Engineer of the Year, American Institute of Chemical Engineers, Detroit Section

1980

Professional Progress Award, American Institute of Chemical Engineers

1981

Chemtech Progress Award, American Chemical Society

1988

R. H. Wilhelm Award, American Institute of Chemical Engineers

1989

Elected member, National Academy of Engineering

1991

Honorary Doctor of Engineering, Technical University of Budapest

1994

Honorary Member, Romanian Catalysis Society

1999

R&D 100 Award for novel method for asbestos abatement, shared with team members at W. R. Grace, R&D Magazine

1999

Honorary Member, Hungarian National Academy of Engineering

2000

Catalysis and Reaction Engineering Practice Award, American Institute of Chemical Engineers

2005

Award of Merit in Appreciation of Contributions Rendered for the Continuing Advancement of Chemical Engineering, Chemical Marketing Economics Group, American Chemical Society

2006

Management Division Award, American Institute of Chemical Engineers

2008

Selected to be one of One Hundred Chemical Engineers of the Modern Era, American Institute of Chemical Engineers

2014

Elected Corresponding Member, Academy of Athens (Greece)

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Born in Budapest; grew up in Szolnok, Hungary, one of two children. Father and brother both chemical engineers too; mother teacher. Memories of World War II. Parents' expectations; Hungarian high school system. Verseghy Ferenc Gimnázium; excellent education. Early interests in geography and biology. Life in Communist Hungary. Soccer.

College Years
9

Technical University of Budapest; long, hard entrance exam. Six-day weeks; rigorous; attendance required; much memorization. Labs. Thesis on electrochemistry under J. Petro led to interest in electrochemistry and catalysis. Uprising in 1956; memories of Russian tanks in Szolnok. After graduation most people assigned to jobs, but Hegedus recruited to Research Institute for the Organic Chemical Industry. Used early gas chromatograph in the development of a polyester process; building machine; hours of work; living in Budapest. Motorcycle trip to North Sea with friends.

First Years in West
22

Applied for visas to the West with friends; spent month touring free Europe. Obtained job at Daimler-Benz in Mannheim, [then West] Germany. Job as group leader in materials testing ; life in Mannheim; Béla Barényi. Daimler huge operation. Fiancée left Hungary; they married. Wanted to attend top university to learn English; chose University of California, Berkeley.

First Years in United States
32

Aided by Gabor Somorjai, got into Berkeley. Amazed at brilliant faculty and excellent students. Missed fall quarter; got job at Chevron Corporation; invented and published an analytical procedure. Wife became draftsman for Bechtel Corporation. Dissertation on chemical reaction engineering, with Eugene Petersen. Learned Fortran. Published many papers. Charles Simonyi and early computers.

Beginning in Catalytic Converters
46

Auto pollution and emissions control becoming hot topics. Clean Air Act. Took job with General Motors Research Laboratories (GM). Designing catalysts for all cars – millions of chemical reactors that had to last one hundred thousand miles. Almost unlimited support; possibly largest privately-funded non-government research effort. Large number scientists and engineers from various fields were involved. GM hired a number of fresh graduates from top universities to work on the catalytic converter. Feels his GM work eventually led to nomination for National Academy of Engineering (NAE). Friendly competition between various departments within the company. Wrote first book on catalyst poisoning. Other collaborators. Women in field. Antitrust constraints meant different auto manufacturers had different designs. Details of converters. Entire field of reaction engineering affected by catalytic converters and vice versa. Synthesis of catalytic converters and computers led to unimaginable progress in achieving low emissions, high fuel economy, and high power output at the same time. Loves electric cars. Catalytic converter one the greatest technical successes of chemical technology ever.

Moving On
59

Catalytic converter work done; recruited to W. R. Grace's central research department. Discusses two daughters and their careers. With Grace went back to the chemical industry. Still publishing but increasingly managing. Many different kinds of technical challenges and problems at Grace. Offices and plants worldwide; all very interesting. Necessary to continue to be part of scientific community. Research into asbestos. Award for study showing that asbestos can be chemically converted to a harmless material. Balancing research work with management. Peter Boer's style. Still maintains extensive network. Council for Chemical Research (CCR) and American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE).

The French Connection
69

Grace's legal problems with asbestos. Recruited to Elf Atochem to be new research vice president for North America. French company, traveled to Paris, France, many times. Atochem merged several times; now Arkema, worldwide company. More travel to Europe and Asia.

General Thoughts
78

Creative ideas in reaction engineering no longer limited by computers. Reaction engineering not exotic anymore; now materials science on cutting edge. Balance between process and product research in chemical engineering. Advanced lithium batteries next exciting technology. Regulation, competition, consumer demand drive technology. Amateur pilot; loves to fly. Differences between creative research and disciplined flying. Consulting in retirement. Edited and coauthored book on the future of energy. Work on autos and fuels of 2050 with NAE; his portion natural gas. Thinks eventually cars will be all electric.

Index
86

Creative ideas in reaction engineering no longer limited by computers. Reaction engineering not exotic anymore; now materials science on cutting edge. Balance between process and product research in chemical engineering. Advanced lithium batteries next exciting technology. Regulation, competition, consumer demand drive technology. Amateur pilot; loves to fly. Differences between creative research and disciplined flying. Consulting in retirement. Edited and coauthored book on the future of energy. Work on autos and fuels of 2050 with NAE; his portion natural gas. Thinks eventually cars will be all electric.

About the Interviewer

Hilary Domush

Hilary Domush was a Program Associate in the Center for Oral History at CHF from 2007–2015. Previously, she earned a BS in chemistry from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine in 2003.  She then completed an MS in chemistry and an MA in history of science both from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Her graduate work in the history of science focused on early nineteenth-century chemistry in the city of Edinburgh, while her work in the chemistry was in a total synthesis laboratory.  At CHF, she worked on projects such as the Pew Biomedical Scholars, Women in Chemistry, Atmospheric Science, and Catalysis.

Jacqueline Boytim

Jacqueline Boytim is a program associate in the Institute for Research at the Science History Institute. Before joining the Institute for Research, Boytim worked in visitor services in our museum. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Science, Technology, and Society at the University of Pennsylvania.