Memorial Tributes: Volume 27
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  • NAI Y. CHEN (1926-2017)



    NAI YUEN CHEN, a retired Mobil Oil Research and Development Corporation senior scientist and professor at the University of Texas, Arlington (UTA), died March 30, 2017, in Arlington, Texas, at age 91.

    N.Y. was born in Beijing, China, on Jan. 6, 1926, to Tao Sheng Chen and his wife, Tong Tze Lin. His father, Tao Sheng, was a prominent microbiologist. He pioneered fermentation technologies in the 1920s and 1930s as technical director at the Shandong Pu Yi Winery and later led research at the Shanghai Research Institute.

    N.Y. earned his B.S. in chemical engineering from the University of Shanghai in 1947, after which he worked for Taiwan Sugar Corporation for five years. In 1952, he immigrated to the United States and enrolled in the Louisiana State University (LSU) graduate engineering program. N.Y. earned an M.S. in chemical engineering from LSU in 1954. He was subsequently accepted into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) chemical engineering program and received his Sc.D. from MIT in 1959.

    Following a one-year postdoctoral stint at MIT, N.Y. joined Mobil Oil in 1960 as a research associate. He was initially employed at Mobil’s Paulsboro, New Jersey, research and development laboratory, where he worked with Mobil senior scientist and National Academy of Engineering member Paul B. Weisz (NAE 1977).

    Over the next 19 years, N.Y. progressed up Mobil’s technical ladder. He was promoted to senior scientist, the company’s highest technical position, in 1979. Concurrent with his position as senior scientist, and for the remainder of his career, N.Y. held several managerial positions in Mobil’s Central Research Laboratory. He retired from Mobil Oil in 1993. N.Y. continued as a technical consultant with ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company until 2007.

    N.Y. was a visiting professor of chemical engineering at the National University of Singapore in 1993. In 2011, he joined UTA as a distinguished research professor. He remained active in UTA research until his death in 2017.

    N.Y. was a prolific inventor and an early pioneer in the application of “shape-selective” zeolite catalysis. He was an inventor or co-inventor on 126 U.S. patents. A majority of these patents covered new zeolite applications in the areas related to petroleum refining, petrochemical production, and biomass conversion. His seminal work in the catalytic conversion of biomass predated the commercial interest in this area by at least two decades. Among his major contributions was the commercialization of the “Selectoforming” process for upgrading reformate to high-octane gasoline. His discovery and development of the Selectoforming process coincided with the removal of tetraethyl lead from gasoline and helped address the U.S. “octane deficit” resulting from tetraethyl lead removal.

    Along with his collaborator, William E. Garwood, N.Y. pioneered the catalytic dewaxing of distillates (for diesel) and lubrication feedstocks. The resulting refining processes, Mobil Distillate Dewaxing and Mobil Lubricant Dewaxing, led to the retirement of many energy-intensive solvent dewaxing processes. N.Y.’s research influenced much of the fundamental catalysis development that was conducted between 1960 and 1990 in Mobil’s Paulsboro and Princeton, New Jersey, laboratories.

    N.Y. authored or coauthored 73 papers in refereed technical journals and eight book chapters — all on topics related to zeolite catalysis. He also authored or co-authored four books.2

    In recognition of his contributions to industrial catalysis, N.Y. was honored with several awards, including, in 1985, the Catalysis Club of Philadelphia Award. In 2013, he was named a charter fellow in the inaugural class of the National Academy of Inventors and was recognized as a member of the Texas Academy of Medicine, Engineering, Science & Technology.

    As a graduate student at LSU he subsisted on the stipend from his graduate assistantship. He negotiated an arrangement in which he was permitted to live for free under the LSU stadium. He often joked that he would cook his meals over a Bunsen burner. He enjoyed restaurants that served generous portions. Among his favorites were Atlantic City $5 buffets. As a frequent customer, his picture was posted on the wall at Tom’s Burgers & Grill in Arlington, Texas. However, he monitored his diet to keep his diabetes under control.

    N.Y. was an avid sports fan. He loved playing tennis and attending baseball games. He usually had two TVs and two radios simultaneously broadcasting different sporting events — baseball games, golf, tennis. He walked through the house from his bedroom upstairs to his study downstairs and managed to keep up with all the games. In his final years in Texas, he frequently attended Texas Rangers ballgames.

    Children loved him. He made googly eyes at babies and was good at fixing toys. His younger cousin called him “Shou Gou Ge Ge,” which means “big brother that repaired my dog” (in this case, a dog toy). He was a skilled photographer and faithfully photographed his daughters at every ballet recital and musical theater performance. As a grandfather, he enjoyed watching his grandsons at every school show, orchestra concert, baseball game, and gymnastics meet.

    As he approached retirement, N.Y. started to experience headaches and difficulty seeing at night. An MRI revealed a small brain tumor, which, fortunately, was benign. At the time of the diagnosis, he had accepted a National University of Singapore visiting professorship. His physicians told him to pursue his plans to travel to Singapore. When he returned, the tumor had grown to the size of a grapefruit, pushing his brain to one side. The tumor had become life-threatening. In 1994, at age 68, he had successful major brain surgery followed by proton radiation therapy. The tumor never returned. N.Y. recovered completely and went on to accept a position at UTA as research professor, a position he held until his death.

    N.Y. was preceded in death by his wife of 49 years, Margaret Ren-Sun Chien. He is survived by his brother, Nai Yong Chen; sister, Yu Mei Chen; two daughters, Nancy (Stephen) Cavanaugh and Victoria (Jeffrey Guild) Chen; and two grandsons. His grandsons fondly remember Sunday Chinese lessons and playing card games with N.Y., and he was very proud of his grandsons’ baseball pitching and gymnastics prowess. His influence, integrity, and kindness touched many colleagues.

    1Much of the information in this tribute was generously provided by N.Y.’s daughters, Victoria Chen and Nancy Cavanaugh.
    2Aris R, Bell AT, Boudart M, Chen NY, Gates BC, Haag WO, Somorjai GA, Wei J, Hegedus LS. 1987. Catalyst Design: Progress and Perspectives. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley-Interscience; Chen NY, Garwood WE, Dwyer FG. 1989. Shape Selective Catalysis in Industrial Applications. New York: Marcel Dekker Inc.; Chen NY, Degnan TF Jr, Smith CM. 1996. Molecular Transport and Reaction in Zeolites: Design and Application of Shape Selective Catalysis. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons; Chen NY. 1996. Shape Selective Catalysis in Industrial Applications. Vol. 65. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press.