In Memoriam: John H. Sinfelt (1931–2011)

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.