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John H. Sinfelt

John H. Sinfelt

John H. Sinfelt in his laboratory at Exxon Research and Engineering Company. Courtesy ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company.

  • Born: February 18, 1931, Munson, Pennsylvania
  • Died: May 28, 2011, Tewksbury, New Jersey

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0134
Interview Date: February 21, 1995
Location: Annandale, New Jersey
Interviewer: James J. Bohning
No. of pages: 62
Sponsor: Society of Chemical Industry
Society of Chemical Industry

  Abstract of Interview

In this interview, Dr. Sinfelt recalls his childhood during the Depression, his early education, and his interest in mathematics. He then moves on to the awakening of his interest in science, first at Lycoming College and then at Pennsylvania State University. He decided to continue on to graduate work at the University of Illinois. Sinfelt describes the University's chemistry department under Roger Adams and his own studies under Harry Drickamer. Moving on to the Exxon Research and Engineering Company, Sinfelt recounts how post-World War II demand for increased production of high octane gasoline led to two developments: the choice of fixed-bed platinum hydroforming over fluid-bed hydroforming and the choice of precious rather than non-precious metal catalysts. Sinfelt describes how his research on catalytic reaction kinetics meshed with Exxon's increased emphasis on basic research and how this led to his discovery of bimetallic clusters and the success of the platinum-iridium catalyst. He describes how Exxon's commercial use of this catalyst, along with Chevron's platinum-rhenium catalyst led to the development of lead-free gasoline and decreased carbon monoxide emissions. Sinfelt next discusses current environmental concerns about this system. He then explains his research on the crystalline structure of bimetallic catalysts, which led to the characterization of small metallic particles and metallic adsorption. Finally, Sinfelt discusses Exxon's attitude toward research; his book Bimetallic Catalysts, in which he theorizes on the relationship between an element's catalytic activity and its place in the periodic table; and his views on innovation, teamwork, and the future of research in the chemical industry.


1951 B.S., Chemical Engineering, Pennsylvania State University
1953 M.S., Chemical Engineering, University of Illinois
1954 Ph.D., Chemical Engineering, University of Illinois

  Professional Experience

Exxon Research and Engineering Company

1954 - 1957 Research Engineer

Exxon Research and Engineering Company

1957 - 1962 Group Leader

Exxon Research and Engineering Company

1962 - 1968 Research Associate

Exxon Research and Engineering Company

1968 - 1972 Senior Research Associate

Exxon Research and Engineering Company

1972 - 1979 Scientific Advisor

Exxon Research and Engineering Company

1979 - 1996 Senior Scientific Advisor

Exxon Research and Engineering Company

1996 Senior Scientific Advisor Emeritus


1971 Alpha Chi Sigma Award in Chemical Engineering Research, American Institute of Chemical Engineers
1973 Paul H. Emmett Award in Fundamental Catalysis, Catalysis Society
1975 Elected to National Academy of Engineering
1975 Professional Progress Award for Outstanding Progress in Chemical Engineering, American Institute of Chemical Engineers
1976 American Chemical Society Award in Petroleum Chemistry
1977 Dickson Prize in Science and Engineering, Carnegie-Mellon University
1978 American Physical Society International Prize for New Materials
1979 Elected to National Academy of Sciences
1979 President's National Medal of Science
1980 Elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
1981 Honorary D.Sc., University of Illinois
1981 Chemical Pioneer Award, American Institute of Chemists
1984 Perkin Medal in Chemistry, Society of Chemical Industry (American Section)
1984 Gold Medal in Chemistry, American Institute of Chemists
1985 Distinguished Alumnus Award, Pennsylvania State University
1986 E. V. Murphree Award in Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, American Chemical Society
1991 Elected to New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame
1994 Elected to American Philosophical Society

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Childhood and Early Education 1

Growing up during the Depression. Early education in two-room schoolhouse. Interest in mathematics in high school. Death of sister. Importance of having fun doing science.

Undergraduate Education 6

First year at Lycoming College. Qualitative analysis course. Discussion of coursework, laboratory conditions, and faculty at Pennsylvania State University. Summer employment with chemical companies.

Graduate Education 12

Assistantship at University of Illinois. Chemistry Department under Roger Adams. Harry Drickamer. Ph.D. thesis on diffusion in liquids. Decision to pursue career as chemist in chemical or oil company.

Early Career at Exxon Research and Engineering Company (ER&E) 18

Early work with catalytic cracking and reforming. Development of processes to make higher-octane gasoline and increase production. Trend toward using precious metal catalysts. Vladimir Haensel. Switch from fluid hydroforming to fixed bed platinum hydroforming. First use of platinum as catalyst.

Development of Bimetallic Catalysts 22

Research on kinetics of catalytic reactions. Exxon's development of basic research. Michel Boudart. Bayway Refinery strike. Development of Central Basic Research Laboratory (CBRL). Development of platinum-iridium catalyst, later combined with Chevron's platinum-rhenium catalyst. Development of lead-free gasoline with reduced carbon monoxide emissions. Environmental concerns about aromatic hydrocarbons.

Final Research 41

Continued research on bimetallic catalysts with Boeing laboratories using X-ray absorption spectroscopy, extended x-ray absorption fine structure (EXAFS), and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). Promotion to senior scientific advisor. Exxon's attitude toward research. Role of scientific innovation. Definition of teamwork. ER&E's 75th anniversary. Future of R&D in chemical industry. Perkin Medal. Importance of fun in science. Relationship between catalytic activity and periodicity. Bimetallic Catalysts.

Notes 53

Index 54

  About the Interviewer

James J. Bohning

James J. Bohning is professor emeritus of chemistry at Wilkes University, where he was a faculty member from 1959 to 1990. He served there as chemistry department chair from 1970 to 1986 and environmental science department chair from 1987 to 1990. Bohning was chair of the American Chemical Society’s Division of the History of Chemistry in 1986; he received the division’s Outstanding Paper Award in 1989 and has presented more than forty papers at national meetings of the society. Bohning was on the advisory committee of the society’s National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program from its inception in 1992 through 2001 and is currently a consultant to the committee. He developed the oral history program of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and he was the foundation’s director of oral history from 1990 to 1995. From 1995 to 1998, Bohning was a science writer for the News Service group of the American Chemical Society. He is currently a visiting research scientist and CESAR Fellow at Lehigh University. In May 2005, he received the Joseph Priestley Service Award from the Susquehanna Valley Section of the American Chemical Society.

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