Messenger - Vol. 4, No. 2, Page 10
Modernization project propels UD's chemical engineering department
          into the 21st century

     Chemical engineering student Jim Rekoske works with Mark A.
Barteau, Robert L. Pigford Professor of Chemical Engineering, to fine-
tune a process that might make it possible to synthesize thousands of
useful compounds-from pharmaceuticals to the vitamin beta
carotene-without generating undesirable byproducts.
     The process, based on the coupling of compounds known as
carbonyls, uses gas-phase catalytic reactions, rather than "organic
synthesis" techniques, the third-year graduate student from Wisconsin
explains. Non-chemists could think of it this way: Organic synthesis
is like baking a cake "from scratch," whereas catalytic processes are
more akin to microwave cooking. Catalysis, like microwave cooking, is
usually more efficient and requires less cleanup.
     "We think we should be able to achieve many traditional organic
synthesis reactions more efficiently and in a more environmentally
benign manner," Rekoske says. Unfortunately, Rekoske's research is
often complicated by the physical limitations of existing chemical
engineering facilities. Whenever he weighs samples using a highly
sensitive new instrument called a microbalance, for example, Rekoske
has to statistically "filter out" the effects of unwanted vibrations.
"I'm currently working on the third floor of the old Colburn
Laboratory, and vibrations are amplified at that level," he says. "My
measurements are affected by things like people's footsteps and the
opening and closing of doors."
     Future generations of students will encounter no such
obstacles-thanks to the $22 million modernization project now under
way. When the University finishes renovating and modernizing Colburn
Laboratory in 1996, researchers will have access to a special low-
vibration room. The new building will also include improved
ventilation for working with potentially hazardous substances, highly
controlled electrical power flow and a "clean" room where inadvertent
contamination of samples can be prevented.
     While the modernized facilities will enhance research, they also
will alleviate crowding and provide safer working conditions, says
Michael T. Klein, Elizabeth Inez Kelly Professor of Chemical
Engineering and chairperson of the Department of Chemical Engineering.
The University's current chemical engineering facilities were designed
in the 1960s, Klein notes. At that time, he says, the department
included only 12 faculty members and 50 graduate students. During the
1980s, however, the department grew and now includes 21 full-time
faculty members, 114 graduate students and 240 undergraduates. The
faculty ranks include eight National Science Foundation Presidential
Young Investigators-more than any other chemical engineering
department in the nation. "We simply outgrew our building," Klein
     Arthur B. Metzner, H. Fletcher Brown Professor Emeritus of
Chemical Engineering and former department chairperson, says improved
facilities are needed to support today's molecular-scale experiments.
"Thirty years ago, studies were macroscopic, or very large-scale,
involving big equipment intended to simulate real industrial
processes," Metzner says. "That work was productive, but now we need
microscopic data to insert into models that describe macroscopic
processes. Molecular-scale experiments require highly sensitive
instruments in a very controlled environment."

A tradition of excellence
     The University graduated its first chemical engineering majors in
1915. But the department's real "birthday" is usually recorded as
1938, when the University hired "a brilliant young DuPont Co. engineer
named Allan P. Colburn," according to John A. Munroe, H. Rodney Sharp
Professor Emeritus of History, who wrote The University of Delaware: A
History (1986).
     Colburn (1904-1955) "had very quickly begun to gain an
international reputation" at DuPont, but he suffered from lung
disease, Munroe wrote. Academic life was thought to be beneficial to
Colburn's health, and DuPont wanted to strengthen its ties with the
University. Thus, Colburn's arrival set the stage for strong
industry/academic interactions, a tradition that continued to evolve
under the leadership of the late Robert L. Pigford and the late Jack
     Today, the department is building on the legacy of Colburn,
Pigford, Gerster and their distinguished successors-Arthur B. Metzner,
Kenneth B. Bischoff, Stanley I. Sandler and T.W. Fraser Russell.
     Working in areas such as catalysis, polymer processing and
molecular and engineering thermodynamics, University engineers have
gained widespread prominence. In the Center for Molecular and
Engineering Thermodynamics (CMET), for instance, researchers have
played a key role in developing cleaner-burning gasolines and
environmentally friendly refrigerants to replace ozone-destroying
chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), CMET Director Sandler reports.
     Within the Center for Catalytic Science and Technology, says
Director Henry C. Foley, collaborative research has resulted in
improvements to industrial synthesis techniques.
     "Our chemical engineering department is a peak of excellence that
defines great universities," says Stuart L. Cooper, H. Rodney Sharp
Professor of Chemical Engineering and dean of the College of
     By all accounts, the department has earned such bragging rights.
It consistently ranks among the top 10 when compared with other
institutions. In a Science Watch ranking based on the impact of
scholarly articles by faculty, for example, the department was judged
the seventh most influential in the world. It also ranked sixth in the
prestigious Gourman survey of graduate programs. With five National
Academy of Engineering members, eight Presidential Young Investigators
and eight named professors, the Department of Chemical Engineering is
poised to meet the needs of students in the 21st century.
     "The University of Delaware has one of the premiere chemical
engineering programs in the nation," says alumnus Richard E. (Dick)
Emmert, Delaware '52M, '54 PhD, executive director of the American
Institute of Chemical Engineers. "There is no question whatsoever that
I value very highly the education that the University provided for
                                                    -Ginger Pinholster