John H. Sinfelt
John H. Sinfelt in his laboratory at Exxon Research and Engineering Company. Courtesy ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company.
As a child, John H. Sinfelt (b. 1931) attended a two-room schoolhouse in a small village 25 miles from Pennsylvania State University. He later attended the university, majoring in chemical engineering, and proceeded to the University of Illinois for a doctorate. He started research at Standard Oil Development Company (now ExxonMobil Research and Engineering) in 1954 on improving the platinum catalysts that another chemical engineer, Vladimir Haensel, had pioneered at the Universal Oil Products Company for the production of gasoline.
Sinfelt believed that the overlapping chemistry and chemical engineering curricula at Pennsylvania State University and the University of Illinois had prepared him well for this assignment. After developing a new approach to bimetallic catalysts, which he called “clusters,” Sinfelt invented a superior platinum-iridium catalyst that was important in the quest to produce lead-free, high-octane gasoline cheaply. His work also provided a scientific base for other processes to produce petrochemicals in high volume.