In Memoriam: W. Nicholas Delgass (1942–2021)

Pro­fes­sor W. Nicholas Del­gass passed away peace­ful­ly at home on August 17, 2021 after a long and coura­geous fight with can­cer to stay with us and to con­tin­ue to care for us for as long as he could. He was cared for by his lov­ing fam­i­ly, Bet­ty, his wife of 54 years, and their two sons, Michael and Leif. Nick was born and raised in the East Coast, grad­u­at­ing from Sta­ples High School in West­port, CT. He earned an under­grad­u­ate degree in Chem­i­cal Engi­neer­ing and Math­e­mat­ics from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan (1964) and a Ph.D. in Chem­i­cal Engi­neer­ing from Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty (1969) and then com­plet­ed his post-doc­tor­al fel­low­ship at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley (1969). He start­ed his aca­d­e­m­ic career at Yale Uni­ver­si­ty, from where he moved to Pur­due Uni­ver­si­ty in 1974. Nick had a dis­tin­guished 38-year career in Purdue’s School of Chem­i­cal Engi­neer­ing, where he stayed active in research and men­tor­ing even after his retire­ment in 2012 as the Max­ine Spencer Nichols Emer­i­tus Pro­fes­sor of Chem­i­cal Engi­neer­ing.

Nick is rec­og­nized inter­na­tion­al­ly for his work in bring­ing togeth­er new ana­lyt­i­cal tools, cat­a­lyst char­ac­ter­i­za­tion meth­ods, cat­a­lyst chem­istry and design, and reac­tion engi­neer­ing into the analy­sis of chem­i­cal reac­tion sys­tems and their mech­a­nisms. Nick Del­gass was the con­sum­mate teacher and schol­ar, with a unique com­bi­na­tion of wis­dom, vision, gen­eros­i­ty, and kind­ness that cre­at­ed a mag­net­ic per­son­al­i­ty, allow­ing him to serve as the nucle­us of the cen­ter of excel­lence in catal­y­sis research at Pur­due and more recent­ly as the inspi­ra­tion and gen­e­sis of the NSF Cen­ter for Inno­v­a­tive and Strate­gic Trans­for­ma­tion of Alka­ne Resources. Few researchers have impact­ed the field so broad­ly. Nick’s career start­ed with sem­i­nal work in the appli­ca­tion of Möss­bauer spec­troscopy to cat­alyt­ic reac­tion sys­tems, in stud­ies that pro­vid­ed unprece­dent­ed insights into the struc­ture and func­tion of iron-con­tain­ing cat­a­lysts for C1 con­ver­sion, then and now the enabling tech­nol­o­gy for val­oriz­ing nat­ur­al gas resources. His focus remained through­out on a quest for the con­tin­u­ous dis­cov­ery of cat­alyt­ic reac­tion sys­tems of sig­nif­i­cant impor­tance in prac­tice. He is wide­ly regard­ed as an intel­lec­tu­al leader in catal­y­sis for his advances in epox­i­da­tion, hydrodesul­fu­r­iza­tion, NOx con­ver­sion, and bio­mass hydrodeoxy­gena­tion cat­a­lysts. His decade-long work on NOx traps and on cat­alyt­ic strate­gies for NOx mit­i­ga­tion using Cu/zeolite cat­a­lysts has great­ly influ­enced the design and prac­tice of NOx abate­ment strate­gies that are ubiq­ui­tous today in diesel efflu­ent aftertreat­ment. Nick’s imag­i­na­tion and cre­ativ­i­ty led him to pro­pose and imple­ment the nov­el con­cept of Dis­cov­ery Infor­mat­ics, which inte­grates high through­put exper­i­men­ta­tion with micro­ki­net­ic mod­els into a tar­get­ed search for cat­a­lysts designed for spe­cif­ic reac­tiv­i­ty and selec­tiv­i­ty.

Nick Del­gass served the pro­fes­sion admirably and with great impact for more than four decades. He served as Edi­tor-in-Chief of Jour­nal of Catal­y­sis, the flag­ship archival jour­nal of the field. His teach­ing and men­tor­ing at Pur­due are tru­ly leg­endary. He won vir­tu­al­ly every teach­ing award at Pur­due, was induct­ed into the Pur­due Book of Great Teach­ers, and received the inau­gur­al Engi­neer­ing Men­tor­ing Excel­lence Award. His research awards include the 2013 Her­man Pines Award in Catal­y­sis, Catal­y­sis Club of Chica­go; 2012 R.H. Wil­helm Award in Chem­i­cal Reac­tion Engi­neer­ing, AICHE; 2011 (Inau­gur­al) Award for Dis­tin­guished Ser­vice in the Advance­ment of Catal­y­sis, North Amer­i­can Catal­y­sis Soci­ety; 2006 Excel­lence in Catal­y­sis Award, Catal­y­sis Soci­ety of Met­ro­pol­i­tan New York; 1985 Giuseppe Par­ra­vano Memo­r­i­al Award for Excel­lence in Catal­y­sis Research, Michi­gan Catal­y­sis Soci­ety; 1990 AT&T Foun­da­tion Award, ASEE; 2007 Pur­due Col­lege of Engi­neer­ing Team Award.

Nick was a tru­ly gen­tle man, unmatched in his grace, thought­ful­ness, and sin­cere con­cern for oth­ers. He brought these per­son­al qual­i­ties togeth­er with a superb intel­lect and with an uncom­pro­mis­ing pen­chant for rig­or, pre­ci­sion, and schol­ar­ship. He men­tored not only his stu­dents but every­one who was touched by inter­ac­tions with him. Nick grad­u­at­ed more than 61 PhD stu­dents and he was very proud of all of them. Bet­ty and Nick were also the con­sum­mate hosts to so many stu­dents and friends; they brought them togeth­er with­in their home with their warmth and hos­pi­tal­i­ty, with Nick often clad in his sig­na­ture tuxe­do to match his broad smile. His hon­esty, humil­i­ty, and enthu­si­asm set the bench­mark from which so many of us have learned. He lis­tened to every­one with respect; he nev­er preached. His gen­er­ous spir­it, keen intel­lect, and above all his kind­ness will remain the ever­last­ing lega­cy of one of the lead­ing fig­ures in our dis­ci­pline. To many in the chem­i­cal engi­neer­ing and catal­y­sis com­mu­ni­ties, at Pur­due and every­where, Nick Del­gass was also a dear friend.
Pre­pared by Fabio H. Ribeiro, Enrique Igle­sia, and Raja­mani Gounder.