John H. Sinfelt
The information listed below is current as of the date the transcript was finalized.
Abstract of Interview
In this interview, Dr. Sinfelt recalls his childhood during the Depression, his early education, and his interest in mathematics. He then moves on to the awakening of his interest in science, first at Lycoming College and then at Pennsylvania State University. He decided to continue on to graduate work at the University of Illinois. Sinfelt describes the University's chemistry department under Roger Adams and his own studies under Harry Drickamer. Moving on to the Exxon Research and Engineering Company, Sinfelt recounts how post-World War II demand for increased production of high octane gasoline led to two developments: the choice of fixed-bed platinum hydroforming over fluid-bed hydroforming and the choice of precious rather than non-precious metal catalysts. Sinfelt describes how his research on catalytic reaction kinetics meshed with Exxon's increased emphasis on basic research and how this led to his discovery of bimetallic clusters and the success of the platinum-iridium catalyst. He describes how Exxon's commercial use of this catalyst, along with Chevron's platinum-rhenium catalyst led to the development of lead-free gasoline and decreased carbon monoxide emissions. Sinfelt next discusses current environmental concerns about this system. He then explains his research on the crystalline structure of bimetallic catalysts, which led to the characterization of small metallic particles and metallic adsorption. Finally, Sinfelt discusses Exxon's attitude toward research; his book Bimetallic Catalysts, in which he theorizes on the relationship between an element's catalytic activity and its place in the periodic table; and his views on innovation, teamwork, and the future of research in the chemical industry.
|1951||Pennsylvania State University||BS||Chemical Engineering|
|1953||University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign||MS||Chemical Engineering|
|1954||University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign||PhD||Chemical Engineering|
Exxon Research and Engineering Company
Alpha Chi Sigma Award in Chemical Engineering Research, American Institute of Chemical Engineers
Paul H. Emmett Award in Fundamental Catalysis, Catalysis Society
Elected to National Academy of Engineering
Professional Progress Award for Outstanding Progress in Chemical Engineering, American Institute of Chemical Engineers
American Chemical Society Award in Petroleum Chemistry
Dickson Prize in Science and Engineering, Carnegie-Mellon University
American Physical Society International Prize for New Materials
Elected to National Academy of Sciences
President's National Medal of Science
Elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
Honorary DSc, University of Illinois
Chemical Pioneer Award, American Institute of Chemists
Perkin Medal in Chemistry, Society of Chemical Industry (American Section)
Gold Medal in Chemistry, American Institute of Chemists
Distinguished Alumnus Award, Pennsylvania State University
E. V. Murphree Award in Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, American Chemical Society
Elected to New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame
Elected to American Philosophical Society
Table of Contents
Growing up during the Depression. Early education in two-room schoolhouse. Interest in mathematics in high school. Death of sister. Importance of having fun doing science.
First year at Lycoming College. Qualitative analysis course. Discussion of coursework, laboratory conditions, and faculty at Pennsylvania State University. Summer employment with chemical companies.
Assistantship at University of Illinois. Chemistry Department under Roger Adams. Harry Drickamer. PhD thesis on diffusion in liquids. Decision to pursue career as chemist in chemical or oil company.
Early work with catalytic cracking and reforming. Development of processes to make higher-octane gasoline and increase production. Trend toward using precious metal catalysts. Vladimir Haensel. Switch from fluid hydroforming to fixed bed platinum hydroforming. First use of platinum as catalyst.
Research on kinetics of catalytic reactions. Exxon's development of basic research. Michel Boudart. Bayway Refinery strike. Development of Central Basic Research Laboratory (CBRL). Development of platinum-iridium catalyst, later combined with Chevron's platinum-rhenium catalyst. Development of lead-free gasoline with reduced carbon monoxide emissions. Environmental concerns about aromatic hydrocarbons.
Continued research on bimetallic catalysts with Boeing laboratories using X-ray absorption spectroscopy, extended x-ray absorption fine structure (EXAFS), and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). Promotion to senior scientific advisor. Exxon's attitude toward research. Role of scientific innovation. Definition of teamwork. ER&E's 75th anniversary. Future of R&D in chemical industry. Perkin Medal. Importance of fun in science. Relationship between catalytic activity and periodicity. Bimetallic Catalysts.
About the Interviewer
James J. Bohning was professor emeritus of chemistry at Wilkes University, where he had been a faculty member from 1959 to 1990. He served there as chemistry department chair from 1970 to 1986 and environmental science department chair from 1987 to 1990. Bohning was chair of the American Chemical Society’s Division of the History of Chemistry in 1986; he received the division’s Outstanding Paper Award in 1989 and presented more than forty papers at national meetings of the society. Bohning was on the advisory committee of the society’s National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program from its inception in 1992 through 2001 and is currently a consultant to the committee. He developed the oral history program of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and he was CHF’s director of oral history from 1990 to 1995. From 1995 to 1998, Bohning was a science writer for the News Service group of the American Chemical Society. In May 2005, he received the Joseph Priestley Service Award from the Susquehanna Valley Section of the American Chemical Society. Bohning passed away in September 2011.