By LOUISE STORY
John H. Sinfelt, a chemical engineer whose research for an oil company helped lead to the introduction of unleaded gasoline and significant reductions in air pollution, died on May 28 in Morristown, N.J. He was 80.
The cause was complications of congestive heart failure, his son, Klaus, said.
In the late 1960s and ’70s, the petroleum industry was under intense pressure to produce gasoline without lead, which contributed to air pollution and posed substantial health risks, particularly to children. Lead was added to gasoline to raise octane levels, which helped keep engines from knocking.
The Environmental Protection Agency issued regulations calling for a gradual reduction in the lead content of gasoline in 1973.
Dr. Sinfelt was working for the Standard Oil Development Company (now Exxon Mobil Research and Engineering), where he specialized in developing techniques to speed up chemical reactions. While the entire industry was pursuing the goal, said Stuart Soled, distinguished research associate at Exxon Mobil, it was Dr. Sinfelt who came up with a catalytic process using a combination of two metals — platinum and iridium —allowing refiners to inexpensively produce high-octane gasoline without adding lead.
He patented that method, and his ideas became important in further research into chemical reactions, said Enrique Iglesia, who worked with Dr. Sinfelt and who is now a professor of chemical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.
“He was a fairly deep scientist, almost academic in his nature, who made contributions that other people could follow,” Professor Iglesia said.
For Dr. Sinfelt’s breakthrough, President Jimmy Carter presented him with the President’s National Medal of Science at a White House ceremony in 1980. The citation recognized his work “leading to the development of new catalyst systems for the production of low-lead gasoline.”
Dr. Sinfelt received more than 40 patents, and he was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
John Henry Sinfelt was born on Feb. 18, 1931, in Munson, Pa. He graduated from Penn State and completed his master’s and Ph.D. in chemical engineering at the University of Illinois. In the mid-1950s he joined the Standard Oil Development Company.
Besides his son, he is survived by his wife, Muriel, and a brother, Frederick Seinfelt.
Dr. Sinfelt was pleased that he had helped improve the nation’s air quality. “I can’t say he was an environmentalist, but he was very proud that the work he did helped the environment,” his son said.