Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 23
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  • ERIC H. REICHL 1913-2014


    ERIC HERBERT REICHL, a renowned expert in the production of liquid fuels and gas from coal as well as a researcher in both the use and production of coal, died peacefully at his home in Princeton, New Jersey, on November 13, 2014, at the age of 100.

    Eric was born in Vienna, Austria, on December 3, 1913, shortly before the outbreak of World War I. His father, Fritz, an architect, was at an age where he was conscripted into the army. After the death in battle of Fritz’s two older brothers, he was removed from duty at the front out of humanitarian concerns for the family. Thus Eric, his mother Ella, and his father spent the duration of the war in Bozen (now Bolzano), Italy, where his father rendered drawings of battle positions.

    When peace returned, the family moved back to Vienna where Eric was educated at public grade school. Weekends and summers were spent south of the city, hunting and fishing in the woods at a cabin his father had designed and built. Eric next attended an all-boys’ high school (gymnasium) that was very demanding—fewer than half of those who entered graduated—and received an exceptional education. He was especially gifted in geography and history. To the end of his life you could ask him the main physical and political features of any country and get an answer that was complete and accurate. The same was true of history, especially European history.

    By the time he finished high school, things were becoming economically unstable in Austria, a factor in Eric’s decision to enter the field of engineering rather than architecture. While at university, he lived with his widower grandfather who had an apartment nearby. He often reminisced about how well the two “bachelors” enjoyed life together. His grandfather instilled in him a love of mountain climbing that was to last a lifetime.

    In 1931 Eric enrolled in a 5-year program in the Department of Fuel and Gas Technology at what is now known as the Technische Universität Wien and received the equivalent of a master’s degree in chemical engineering. His first summer job involved making an energy balance for a steam-powered furniture factory in Czechoslovakia near the German border. Relations between the Czechs and Germans were seriously deteriorating and Eric was thankful when the summer ended and he could return to Vienna.

    The dark clouds of World War II were already on the horizon when he graduated in 1937 and his cousin, who had emigrated to the United States, convinced him that job opportunities were more favorable there. He left his fiancée, Eva Neuman de Vegvar, in Geneva where she was studying art and set off for New York, immediately finding a job with Babcock and Wilcox as a field engineer. The firm sent him to a construction project in Quincy, Massachusetts, where he worked the midnight shift and spent his days at the MIT library reading engineering magazines.

    In 1938 he answered an advertisement for the Winkler-Koch Engineering Company, was invited to interview at its head­ quarters in Wichita, Kansas, and was hired on the spot. The company specialized in the design and construction of oil refineries.

    Eric and Eva married in 1939. In Wichita he was impressed with the friendliness of the people both on the job and around town, but he recalled having to learn how to conform. His clothes were mostly from Vienna, where in hot weather white shorts were stylish. He found that in Wichita they were taken for underwear and he got rid of them promptly.

    In 1944 Eric, Eva, and their two daughters, Lynn and Helen, moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he engaged in research on synthetic liquid fuels for Stanolind Oil & Gas (Standard Oil of Indiana). His employment there was interrupted by a stint as captain in the United States Navy, a special rank created to allow him access to the German synthetic oil industry.

    The United States had found that a major portion of the fuels used by the German Air Force and Navy had been made from coal. The US armed services were interested in getting details of the technology the Germans had used, which required knowledge of both the specialty and the German language. Eric and another engineer were sent as a two-man team to move just behind the allied front lines, inspect the synthetic oil plants, and interrogate various research groups about their methods for producing oil. This experience set the course for most of his subsequent working life.

    After the war, Eric, now a US citizen, left Tulsa to conduct research for Standard Oil of California, including a special assignment to study the German petrochemical industry for the Department of Commerce. Eric’s parents immigrated to California during this period and his father continued a successful architectural career.

    In 1948 Eric moved with his family to Pittsburgh to become research manager for Consolidation Coal Company (Consol), working on synthetic fuels for the largest private coal research organization (and largest coal mining company) in the United States. The Reichls lived there until 1974 in a home that his father designed.

    Eric supervised the research team at Consol, advancing to supervisor, manager, director, and, finally, vice president– research. During this period, he was issued 12 patents, in areas spanning coal liquefaction, coal gasification, cleanup of coal-combustion stack gases and recovery of elemental sulfur from these, coal carbonization and coking, cross-country pipeline transportation of coal slurry, and hydraulic transportation of coarse coal slurry in underground mines. Consol’s competitors at the time were known to comment that the company had an unfair advantage in that the research group knew more about the coal consumer’s processes than the consumer did—often being summoned to improve their customers’ operations.

    Conoco Oil Company purchased Consolidation Coal Company in 1966 and, when the Arab oil embargo hit in 1974, formed the Conoco Coal Development Company (CCDC) and made Eric president. This required that Eric move to the Conoco headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut.

    The mission of CCDC was to accelerate the development of technology to convert the massive US coal resources into substitutes for imported oil and, if feasible, to commercialize that technology. The Consol research facility at Library, Pennsylvania, formed the core of the CCDC effort. Additional senior personnel from Conoco were added to Eric’s staff, the research was increasingly concentrated on coal liquefaction and gasification, and the effort was broadened to include activity in Great Britain and Germany. Close analysis revealed that it was not feasible to make environmentally acceptable ­liquids from any known or potential liquefaction method without further extensive and costly processing, so Eric narrowed these efforts to gasification processes, with commercialization efforts focused solely on gasification.

    Eric led the development of a project, conducted in Scotland and jointly funded by CCDC and a consortium of US natural gas companies, to establish the feasibility of using bituminous coal in a modified German gasification process that was previously unable to utilize that rank of coal, thereby making extensive US reserves available to produce pipeline-quality gas. Subsequent development supported by the American government, including the Office of Coal Research, produced data considered sufficient for the design of a commercial plant.

    In addition to his extensive research and leadership, during his long career Eric served on a number of advisory boards and task forces, including the Department of Energy’s Research Advisory Board, the National Petroleum Council’s Coal Task Group, the National Science Foundation’s Energy Advisory Council, the Gas Research Institute’s Research Coordination Council, the Management Advisory Council of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Energy and Environmental Visiting Committee. He was also a director of Bituminous Coal Research Inc., the Synthetic Fuels Corporation, the Radian Corporation, and Dynecology Inc. In addition to the NAE, he was a member of the American Chemical Society and American Institute of Chemical Engineers. In 1973 he received the Coal Science Medal presented by the British Coal Utilisation Research Association.

    Following his retirement in 1978, Eric continued consulting and maintained his interest in coal gasification. His last patents were awarded in 1984, 1985, 1988, and 1996. He and Eva, now an accomplished artist, moved to Princeton to be near both New York City and Philadelphia, while traveling extensively.

    Eva died in 1998, after 59 years of marriage, and Eric spent more time visiting with his daughters and grandchildren. During one such visit to Pittsburgh, he rekindled a friendship with Frances Hofmann, the widow of his old friend Klaus Hofmann. Less than a year later they married and lived out the next 15 years in Eric’s Princeton home, together exploring Spain, Switzerland, Scotland, and England. He joked that they were the “remains of the day.” At his 100th birthday in 2013, it was noted that “Eric’s distinctive curmudgeonly charm was in full display as he riveted the audience with a 6-minute account of the 20th century.”

    Eric is survived by Fran; daughters Lynn Weyand and Helen Gilbert; three grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

    Author’s note Although Eric and I worked for Consol during the same period, I was much his junior and employed in another area, thus I did not have the opportunity to meet him, although I knew of him. From those who knew him I have come to understand that I missed a golden opportunity. Jim Bowden, a former coworker, said that Eric was a mentor, “unfailingly polite and always focused on the objective, not given to chasing rabbits or being diverted from the task at hand.” And Fran noted that “Eric remained to the very last one of the most knowledgeable individuals imaginable. His early education and his incredible memory gave him a remarkable ability to contribute valuable information on a host of scientific and nonscientific subjects.” My special thanks go to both of them for contributing the bulk of the information about Eric and supplying extensive narratives, many of which I have included here.

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