A Forward-Looking Focus on Chemical-Process Heritage in Chemical Engineering

Thomas Connelly, Jr.

December 1, 2002 - New York, NY

By Nicholas P. Chopey

DuPont's current plans and activities, especially ones involving collaborative research, got an airing in Philadelphia last month in a speech by Thomas Connelly, senior vice president and chief science and technology officer. Hosting his talk was the Joseph Priestley Soc., a new venture within the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF). Much of the content of Connelly's lucid presentation has already been reported in recent business articles about DuPont. Less widely known are the Joseph Priestley Soc., and, for that matter, CHF itself. As Chemical Engineering closes its 100th-anniversary year (Learning from History, CE, August pp. 77-166), an appreciative glance at both is fitting.

CHF was founded in 1982 by AIChE and the American Chemical Soc. Its goal is "to advance the heritage of the chemical and molecular sciences." CHF's location in the heart of Philadelphia's historical district is fitting in one sense, but misleading in another.

On the one hand, CHF indeed delves effectively and extensively into the histories of chemistry and chemical engineering. It owns a rich collection of printed and other historical materials; it operates a historical research library; it seeks out and disseminates information about historical resources; it encourages historical scholarship; it publishes historical materials; it conducts oral histories.

But in living up to this focus on history and heritage, CHF has also turned out to be a good forum for modern, cutting-edge information. A key 2002 instance has been a CHF-award acceptance speech by Robert Langer of M.I.T.'s chemical engineering department, on diverse applications of that field that are emerging for biomedicine, with polymeric replacements for burn-damaged skin being but one example. A year earlier, also under CHF auspices, Gordon Moore, cofounder and chairman emeritus of Intel, offered insights into the future directions in semiconductor manufacture.

Also in this vein has been the creation of the Joseph Priestley Soc. within CHF. Its aim is to provide a forum, not necessarily in an historical context, on "the intersection of innovation and entrepreneurship." The fledgling group has an imposing lineup of speakers for its monthly meetings, including executives from not only DuPont but also, among others, Sybron Chemicals, Hercules

Chemical, Rohm and Haas, ICI Americas and Arco Chemical.--Chemistry has a rich history, punctuated with evocative names Gay-Lussac, Boyle, Avogadro, van der Waals, Mendeleev, Berzelius and, of course, Priestley, to name but a few--that chemistry students perforce pick up in their course work. Though we chemical engineers also run into venerable, if usually more-recent, names (Reynolds, Raschig, Fanning, Perry, Murphee, Hougen, Colburn, Chilton come first to mind), most of us perhaps have less of a sense of history than the chemists...

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