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BY P. L. THIBAUT BRIAN
RALPH LANDAU died on April 5, 2004. The co-founder of Scientific Design Company, Inc., which later became the Halcon SD Group, he was probably the most gifted and successful chemical industry innovator of his generation. ...
RALPH LANDAU died on April 5, 2004. The co-founder of Scientific Design Company, Inc., which later became the Halcon SD Group, he was probably the most gifted and successful chemical industry innovator of his generation. Under his leadership his company became the major world source of new petrochemical processes, contributing to about one-fourth of all new processes in the period between 1960 and 1985. Licensing of these technologies and design of the plants to produce them resulted in more than 400 plants in 40 countries.
Ralph Landau was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on May 19, 1916. He attended Overbook High School and developed a keen interest in mathematics and science. He then enrolled in the chemical engineering program at the University of Pennsylvania and was awarded a B.S. degree in 1937. With a Tau Beta Pi fellowship to attend any university, he enrolled in the doctoral program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He attended the School of Chemical Engineering Practice and then completed his doctoral thesis, earning an Sc.D. degree in 1941.
Dr. Landau then joined the M. W. Kellogg Company as a process development engineer. In 1943 he was asked to transfer to Kellex Corporation, a Kellogg subsidiary working on the Manhattan Project. As head of the chemical department, he worked with highly skilled engineers, including Harry Rehnberg, to design and run a plant used in the production of very concentrated uranium-235. He returned to Kellogg in 1945 but left in 1946 when he and Harry Rehnberg founded Scientific Design Company. He was executive vice president of Scientific Design from 1946 to 1963, when he became president of Halcon International, Inc., the newly formed holding company for Scientific Design (for engineering and licensing), Catalytic Development Corporation (for manufacturing), and SD Plants (for construction). He became chairman of Halcon in 1975 and continued in that post until Halcon was sold to Texas Eastern Corporation in 1982.
Scientific Design was founded with the objective of improving petrochemical processes, and a major early success was the production of terephthalic acid, the principal raw ingredient in polyester fiber, by bromine-assisted oxidation of paraxylene. The process was sold to Standard Oil Company of Indiana (now Amoco) and today accounts for most of the worldwide production of terephthalic acid. Another major success was an improved process for the production of propylene oxide, which is used in polyurethane foams and rigid polymers. This development was exploited by the formation in 1967 of Oxirane Chemical Company, a joint venture with Atlantic Richfield. Halcon’s interest was purchased in 1980 by Atlantic Richfield, and Oxirane became part of Arco Chemical, which became the world’s leading producer of propylene oxide. Other Halcon technology developments include ethylene oxide, ethylene glycol, maleic anhydride, acetic anhydride, polyisoprenes, and chlorinated solvents. Dr. Landau held numerous patents in his own right, in addition to more than 1,400 held by Halcon and its subsidiaries.
When Halcon was sold to Texas Eastern Corporation in 1982, Dr. Landau began an academic career to study the political and economic environment necessary to encourage technological innovation. At Stanford University he became a consulting professor of economics, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, and associate director of the Center on Employment and Economic Growth. He was also a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He authored more than 143 papers and nine books.
Dr. Landau had a genuine interest in education. He was a life member of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Corporation, and a major gift from him enabled the construction in 1976 of a new building to house the MIT chemical engineering department. The department’s new home was appropriately named the Landau Building. Dr. Landau served on the chemical engineering visiting committee from 1965 until his death, on the economics visiting committee for 19 years, and on several other visiting committees at MIT. He was the main force behind a new building for the Stanford economics department and the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. He also served on advisory committees at Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the California Institute of Technology. He was a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania, where he supported two professorships, and in 1977 he was one of nine trustees who established the challenge fund for the Million Dollar Match alumni-giving program.
Dr. Landau’s achievements have been highly acclaimed. President Reagan awarded him the National Medal of Technology in 1985, as one of its initial recipients. The American Section of the Society of Chemical Industry honored him with the Chemical Industry Medal in 1973 and the Perkin Medal in 1981. The American Institute of Chemical Engineers awarded him the Petroleum and Petrochemicals Division Award in 1972 and the Founders Award in 1982 and designated him Eminent Chemical Engineer in 1983. He received the Winthrop-Sears Award of the Chemical Industry Association in 1977, the Newcomen Society Award in 1978, the Chemical Pioneers Award of the American Institute of Chemists and the New Jersey Science/Technology Medal in 1981, the John Fritz Medal of the United Engineering Trustees in 1987, the Othmer Gold Medal of the Chemical Heritage Foundation in 1997, the 2000 Petrochemical Heritage Award presented by the Chemical Heritage Foundation and the Founders Club, and the Lifetime Achievement in Entrepreneurship and Innovation Award of the Lester Center at the University of California at Berkeley in 2003. He received honorary Sc.D. degrees from Polytechnic University of New York, Clarkson University, Ohio State University, and the University of Pennsylvania.
Dr. Landau was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1972 and served as NAE vice president from 1981 to 1990. He received the NAE Founders Award in 1994. In 1988 Dr. Landau was elected a foreign member of the Royal Academy of Engineering (United Kingdom). He was a fellow of the New York Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 1996 he was elected to the American Philosophical Society.
On July 14, 1940, Ralph Landau married Claire Sackler, and they had a daughter, Laurie J. Landeau. Claire earned a doctorate in sociology, and Laurie earned a doctorate in veterinary medicine. Ralph enjoyed swimming and had a pool at his house on Long Island, where he also had a 25- foot motorboat. He also enjoyed opera and subscribed to the Metropolitan Opera for many years.
Ralph Landau was a superb chemical engineer, a legendary entrepreneur, and a very generous philanthropist. He will be sorely missed by his many friends and colleagues and by legions of others whose lives he touched.