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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 10 April 2010
Submitted by H. Henry Lamb, NCSU (email@example.com) 22 April 2010