In Memoriam: George W. Roberts

It is with great sad­ness that we announce the pass­ing of George W. Roberts, Pro­fes­sor Emer­i­tus of Chem­i­cal and Bio­mol­e­c­u­lar Engi­neer­ing, North Car­oli­na State Uni­ver­si­ty. George suc­cumbed from pan­cre­at­ic can­cer on 5 April 2010 in Raleigh, North Car­oli­na. He fought bold­ly to spare his fam­i­ly the excep­tion­al pain of this ordeal.

Prof. Roberts made sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions in both the indus­tri­al and aca­d­e­m­ic aspects of catal­y­sis espe­cial­ly in under­stand­ing the behav­ior of cat­alyt­ic reac­tors (cat­alyt­ic reac­tion engi­neer­ing). He strong­ly encour­aged his stu­dents to study sig­nif­i­cant prob­lems fac­ing indus­tri­al needs which broad­ened their edu­ca­tion and pre­pared them for future careers.

George was born in Newark, New Jer­sey. He received the B.ChE. degree from Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty in 1961 and the Sc.D. degree in chem­i­cal engi­neer­ing in 1965 from Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy. His research advi­sor at MIT was Prof. Charles N. Sat­ter­field, a dis­tin­guished schol­ar in the field of catal­y­sis and the author of four books deal­ing with catal­y­sis and cat­alyt­ic process­es. From 1965 to 1969, Prof. Roberts was a Research Engi­neer and lat­er a Projects Super­vi­sor with the Rohm and Haas Com­pa­ny in Philadel­phia. He then joined the Chem­i­cal Engi­neer­ing Depart­ment at Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty (St. Louis) as an Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor, where he found­ed and direct­ed the Chem­i­cal Reac­tion Engi­neer­ing Lab­o­ra­to­ry. He received the Dis­tin­guished Fac­ul­ty Award from Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty in 1971.

Prof. Roberts joined Engel­hard in Men­lo Park, NJ in 1972 as Man­ag­er of Chem­i­cal Engi­neer­ing Research, and was respon­si­ble for lead­ing sev­er­al pro­grams that result­ed in the devel­op­ment and com­mer­cial­iza­tion of new cat­a­lysts and cat­alyt­ic process­es, In the mid-1970’s he head­ed a research team that devel­oped a new Pt/Re cat­a­lyst for naph­tha reform­ing with sig­nif­i­cant­ly high­er sta­bil­i­ty than its com­mer­cial pre­de­ces­sor. His team also devel­oped an improved aro­mat­ic iso­mer­iza­tion cat­a­lyst for the pro­duc­tion of xylenes, based on mol­e­c­u­lar sieve tech­nol­o­gy. He then led a research effort in selec­tive hydro­gena­tion of var­i­ous streams derived from steam crack­ing of liq­ue­fied petro­le­um gas (LPG) and naph­tha. Two new process­es were com­mer­cial­ized. He led the devel­op­ment of a new, low-pol­lu­tion com­bus­tion process based on com­bin­ing cat­alyt­ic and homo­ge­neous (ther­mal) com­bus­tion. His group at Engel­hard devel­oped the cat­alyt­ic tech­nol­o­gy that result­ed in the suc­cess­ful imple­men­ta­tion of selec­tive oxi­da­tion of CO in the pres­ence of H2 as a means for debug­ging ammo­nia plants. This process was suc­cess­ful­ly oper­at­ed in sev­er­al domes­tic ammo­nia plants begin­ning in the late-1970’s. More­over, the research lead­ing to this process pro­vid­ed a sound tech­ni­cal foun­da­tion for the renewed study of selec­tive oxi­da­tion of CO, as part of the pro­duc­tion of H2 for use in fuel cells being used today.

From 1977 to 1989, Prof. Roberts held var­i­ous posi­tions in tech­nol­o­gy man­age­ment at Air Prod­ucts and Chem­i­cals, Inc. in Allen­town, PA. His two most notable achieve­ments were lead­ing the teams that devel­oped and com­mer­cial­ized the COPETM process for debot­tle­neck­ing Claus sul­fur recov­ery plants and the LPMeO­HTM process for methanol syn­the­sis. The COPETM process was first com­mer­cial­ized by East­man Chem­i­cal at its coal gasi­fi­ca­tion facil­i­ty in Kingsport, TN. This process has been suc­cess­ful­ly used in a num­ber of Claus plants, and won the 1987 Kirk­patrick Chem­i­cal Engi­neer­ing Achieve­ment Award from Chem­i­cal Engi­neer­ing mag­a­zine.

In 1989, he joined North Car­oli­na State Uni­ver­si­ty as Pro­fes­sor and Head of the Chem­i­cal Engi­neer­ing Depart­ment. He stepped down as Depart­ment Head in 1994 to devote him­self to research and teach­ing. Prof. Roberts received an Out­stand­ing Teacher Award in 2001–2002 and the Alcoa Foun­da­tion Engi­neer­ing Research Award in 2006. Although he offi­cial­ly retired from the Uni­ver­si­ty in 2007, becom­ing Pro­fes­sor Emer­i­tus, George con­tin­ued to be active in research and recent­ly pub­lished a text­book. Chem­i­cal Reac­tions and Chem­i­cal Reac­tors (John Wiley & Sons, 2008) is designed pri­mar­i­ly for the chem­i­cal reac­tion engi­neer­ing (“kinet­ics”) course that is required in almost every chem­i­cal engi­neer­ing cur­ricu­lum, inter­na­tion­al­ly. Prof. Roberts’ book rec­og­nizes explic­it­ly that 80–90% of indus­tri­al reac­tions involve catal­y­sis, pri­mar­i­ly het­ero­ge­neous catal­y­sis. There­fore, het­ero­ge­neous catal­y­sis is intro­duced very ear­ly, and the book con­tains exten­sive treat­ments of the fun­da­men­tals of cat­alyt­ic kinet­ics and the role of trans­port effects in het­ero­ge­neous catal­y­sis.

Prof. Roberts had more than 75 ref­er­eed jour­nal pub­li­ca­tions, 11 ref­er­eed chap­ters in books, and 20 issued US patents on top­ics such as cat­alyt­ic com­bus­tion, methanol syn­the­sis, hydro­gen gen­er­a­tion, and cat­alyt­ic poly­mer hydro­gena­tion. His most recent catal­y­sis research focused on three very nov­el and chal­leng­ing prob­lems:

  1. Hydro­gena­tion of var­i­ous poly­mers with pre­cious met­al cat­a­lysts in order to cre­ate nov­el poly­mer­ic mate­ri­als that are dif­fi­cult to syn­the­size by poly­mer­iza­tion of the appro­pri­ate monomers.
  2. The direct reac­tion of car­bon diox­ide with methane to form acetic acid, and the direct reac­tion of car­bon diox­ide, methane and acety­lene to form vinyl acetate. This is a poten­tial­ly impor­tant approach to recy­cling car­bon diox­ide by using it as a car­bon source in chem­i­cal syn­the­sis.
  3. Cat­alyt­ic reac­tions in super­crit­i­cal flu­ids.

George was a qui­et leader of our com­mu­ni­ty and will be great­ly missed. His con­tri­bu­tions will con­tin­ue to influ­ence new cat­alyt­ic research.
Pre­pared by Robert J. Far­rauto, BASF ( 10 April 2010
Sub­mit­ted by H. Hen­ry Lamb, NCSU ( 22 April 2010