Chemical engineer wins Draper Prize

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  • From left, postdoc Patrick D. Martin, McCord, research scientist Gary B. Hansen, graduate student Charles A. Hibbitts, and their colleagues have found spectral evidence for organic compounds on two Jovian moons.

    Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and other institutions found spectral evidence of the organics in data taken by the near-infrared mapping spectrometer (NIMS), aboard the Jupiter-orbiting spacecraft Galileo {Science, 278, 271 (1997)].

    "I'm not surprised they found it, because we're finding this kind of material distributed very widely," says Dale P. Cruikshank, a planetary scientist at the National Aeronautics & Space Administration's Ames Research Center in Moffett

    The engineering equivalent of the Nobel Prizesthe National Academy of Engineering's Charles Stark Draper Prize has, for the first time, been awarded to a chemical engineer. He is 83-year-old Vladimir (Val) Haensel, still an active professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Haensel received the prize, worth $450,000, at the academy's annual meeting last week. He retired in 1979 as vice president for science and technology from the only company he ever worked for, Universal Oil Products, now UOP.

    Haensel, born in Germany of Russian parents, is a renowned researcher in the field of catalysis and petroleum refining. He is best known for his 1947 development of Platforming, the trade-marked process that uses platinum as the catalyst in the refining of naphtha to produce high-octane aromatics for high-performance gasolines.

    Haensel's work in this and other areas of catalysis earned him membership in the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering as well as the National Medal of Science

    Field, Calif. And, he notes, "anything that can form a polymer is of extreme interest."

    The ubiquitous simple organics have been found in comets and meteorites and on Pluto, the neptunian satellite Triton, and Saturn's moon Titan. Although their exact identities are unknown, they're thought to be a group of simple, possibly polymerizable, "prebiotic" hydrocarbons, precursors to the more complex organic molecules that could have led to the formation of life.

    and the American Section of the Society of Chemical Industry's Perkin Medal.

    There is an added flavor to Haensel's

    Scientists are eager to address the issue of the origin and distribution of these organics. Several possibilities present themselves: The organics could have been formed through the bombardment of the water ice on the moon's surfaces by solar radiation and energetic particles from Jupiter's magnetosphere. They could have been deposited by a rain of interstellar dust, or they might have been part of the moon itself when it first formed.

    "The signature that McCord is seeing is the one that people working on interstellar organic material have been seeing for years, and are still trying to figure out which compounds it relates to," Cruikshank says.

    The spectral signatures McCord and colleagues have identifiedthat of carbon-hydrogen and carbon-nitrogen stretches found in simple, linear organic mole-culesstrikingly resemble those of a class of organic molecules dubbed tholins. Tho-lins are created in the laboratory from a

    " I combination of primitive reduced gases e such as methane and ammonia, which are i then zapped with an electrical discharge to L, simulate energetic events, such as particle r bombardment. s "It may be coincidence, but I don't think so," McCord says. The group is now ;, awaiting more data from future Galileo or-c bits, which should help narrow down the - possibilities of the molecules' identities.

    I Elizabeth Wilson

    career that goes beyond his awards and technical achievements. Haensel is perhaps the person most responsible for the viability of the American Chemical Society's Petroleum Research Fund (PRF).

    UOP was a creative but litigious developer of new technologies for small refining companies. By 1930, it had become bogged down in lawsuits. Its hostile takeover by the seven largest U.S. oil companies in 1931 didn't help. Its legal problems worsened, and, by 1944, UOP was so mired in litigation that the owners offered it to the American Chemical Society. ACS couldn't legally own it, but a trust was set up to provide capital for a newly established PRF.

    Throughout, Haensel continued working and, in 1947, finally hit pay dirt with his Platforming process. It was licensed, UOP's suits were setded, and royalty revenue rolled in. In 1959, the now-successful UOP was sold by the trust for $70 million, which essentially became PRF's endowment. The fund now amounts to $440 million and last year distributed research grants totaling $13.2 million.


    Chemical engineer wins Draper Prize

    OCTOBER 13, 1997 C&EN 7

    Chemical engineer wins Draper Prize