John H. Sinfelt

Born: February 18, 1931 | Munson, PA, US
Died: Saturday, May 28, 2011 | Tewksbury
Photograph of John H. Sinfelt

John H. Sinfelt in his laboratory at Exxon Research and Engineering Company. Courtesy ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company.

In this interview, Dr. Sinfelt recalls his childhood during the Depression, his early education, and his interest in mathematics. Sinfelt describes the University of Illinois chemistry department under Roger Adams and his own studies under Harry Drickamer. Moving on to the Exxon Research and Engineering Company, 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. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0134
No. of pages: 62
Minutes: 234

Interview Sessions

James J. Bohning
21 February 1995
Annandale, New Jersey

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. 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
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

Professional Experience

Exxon Research and Engineering Company

1954 to 1957
Research Engineer
1957 to 1962
Group Leader
1962 to 1968
Research Associate
1968 to 1972
Senior Research Associate
1972 to 1979
Scientific Advisor
1979 to 1996
Senior Scientific Advisor
1996 to 1997
Senior Scientific Advisor Emeritus

Honors

Year(s) Award
1971

Alpha Chi Sigma Award in Chemical Engineering Research, American Institute of Chemical Engineers

1973

Paul H. Emmett Award in Fundamental Catalysis, Catalysis Society

1975

Elected to National Academy of Engineering

1975

Professional Progress Award for Outstanding Progress in Chemical Engineering, American Institute of Chemical Engineers

1976

American Chemical Society Award in Petroleum Chemistry

1977

Dickson Prize in Science and Engineering, Carnegie-Mellon University

1978

American Physical Society International Prize for New Materials

1979

Elected to National Academy of Sciences

1979

President's National Medal of Science

1980

Elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

1981

Honorary DSc, University of Illinois

1981

Chemical Pioneer Award, American Institute of Chemists

1984

Perkin Medal in Chemistry, Society of Chemical Industry (American Section)

1984

Gold Medal in Chemistry, American Institute of Chemists

1985

Distinguished Alumnus Award, Pennsylvania State University

1986

E. V. Murphree Award in Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, American Chemical Society

1991

Elected to New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame

1994

Elected to American Philosophical Society

Table of Contents

Childhood and Early Education
1

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.

Undergraduate Education
6

First year at Lycoming College. Qualitative analysis course. Discussion of coursework, laboratory conditions, and faculty at Pennsylvania State University. Summer employment with chemical companies.

Graduate Education
12

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 Career at Exxon Research and Engineering Company (ER&E)
18

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.

Development of Bimetallic Catalysts
22

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.

Final Research
41

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.

Notes
53
Index
54

About the Interviewer

James J. Bohning

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.