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The 2004 Founders Award was presented to Eli Ruckenstein, Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering, State University of New York, Buffalo, “for leadership in modernizing research and development in key areas of chemical engineering.” These remarks were delivered October 3, 2004, during the NAE Annual Meeting.
I feel honored, humbled, and at the same time overwhelmed to receive this year’s Founders Award, which puts me in very distinguished company.
I was born in a small town in northern Romania in an atmosphere that might remind you of the novels of Gogol or Turgeniev, and I was the first one in my family to go to college. The early days of my career coincided with the early days of communism in Romania. I was not a Party member, and I did not adjust easily to the very political tone of the times—which will not surprise many of you. I worked in a scientific community that had few if any connections to the outside world, and I would never have imagined, even in my most ambitious dreams, that I would find myself experiencing a moment like this, addressing you on this occasion.
Over the course of my career I worked on a broad range of problems, many of which are conventionally associated with subfields of physics, chemistry, and engineering. The fact that I am here addressing you on this special occasion underscores the interdisciplinary nature of our field. Engineering research is a synthesis, which implies learning whatever experimental or theoretical techniques are required to solve the problem at hand, many times forays into distant disciplines.
My own way of doing research was to a large extent defined by the fact that I am basically self-taught and that I don’t belong to any school. I was educated during a special time in the history of Romania, my native country, immediately after the Second World War. A tradition in pure mathematics had existed for some time, and physics and chemistry benefited from the return of a few distinguished researchers who had been trained in the West. However, Romania had no tradition in modern engineering, and much of my education consisted of studying the available original literature on my own.
My early work on heat and mass transfer—which didn’t get to the West until 1958—owes much to the encouragement and understanding of my teacher and mentor, Professor Bratu. In spite of uncertainties under the Communist regime and the fact that I had no formal authority, I managed to attract a group of somewhat younger colleagues with whom I cooperated on a variety of problems, from mass and heat transfer to kinetics of gene expression to interfacial phenomena and thermodynamics of small systems.
When I arrived in the United States at the age of 45, everything I had learned about the West was from a limited number of journals and an even more limited number of contacts with researchers from outside Romania. I was immediately struck, overwhelmed by the amount and breadth of information that became available to me overnight. At that point, I really started a new career.
Since then, my work has extended in roughly five different directions: catalysis, colloids, separation of proteins, polymers, and material science. Don’t worry, I’m not going to give a lecture on each of these directions. I just want to highlight the contributions closest to my heart.
In the area of catalysis, my students and I studied theoretically and experimentally the stability of small metallic clusters on catalytic supports. The other area of catalysis I was fascinated with was the kinetics of selectivity of supported catalysts. I also formulated a theory for the mechanism of oxidation by mixed oxides.
In the area of colloids, we developed a hydrodynamics of colloidal particles that accounted for double-layer and van der Waals interactions. We introduced the concept of “interaction force boundary layer.” We also proposed thermodynamic theories of surfactant aggregation, microemulsions, and liquid crystals. I feel happiest about two contributions: (1) the reformulation of the classic theory of double-layer forces to include in a unified way the interplay between double-layer, hydration forces and the hydration of ions; and (2) a unified kinetic approach to nucleation and growth.
Rather than boring you with descriptions of other theoretical efforts, I will mention some of our more recent technological innovations: the development of a solid-solution catalyst for CO2 reforming of methane; the preparation of some interesting compounds for the storage of H2; and the preparation of a paste with high thermal conductivity, which is now used in all IBM computers. In addition, from concentrated emulsions we developed various technologies for preparing polymers, conductive polymers, and membranes for separation processes.
My career has been and remains a great source of satisfaction to me. For this, I must acknowledge my students, postdocs, and collaborators who, through their hard work, patience, and dedication, have taught me, inspired me, and stimulated me. I would like to share this award with them.
I consider myself a very lucky man who has been surrounded by many guardian angels. I would not have survived my early days as a young assistant professor at the Polytechnic University in Bucharest without Professor Bratu, who protected me from my own inability to fit into the politically driven academic environment of communist Romania, where I was considered a dangerous reactionary.
I also want to thank Jim Davis, Bill Gill, and the Chemical Engineering Department at Clarkson University, who are responsible for my initial move to the United States. I owe them all a debt of gratitude.
I also owe a debt of gratitude to Art Metzner and my colleagues at the University of Delaware who welcomed me and my family warmly, made us feel at home, and helped me through the years of adjustment to the American way of life and the American academic system. I will never forget their moral support for me and my wife during the two-and-one-half years we struggled to get our then teenage children out of Romania.
I also want to acknowledge George Lee, Bill Gill, Ralph Yang, Carl Lund, and my colleagues at Buffalo for providing the resources and helping create the supportive atmosphere that made my last 25 years the most productive, enjoyable, and rewarding of my career.
Someone who deserves a special mention is Howard Brenner, who was instrumental in my getting my first position in the United States. I am deeply thankful to Howard for his help, encouragement, and friendship over the years.
Finally, I would like to thank my family, especially the person who has been the greatest influence in my life, my wife Velina, for her constant support, love, and selfless dedication during our 56 years together. Without her, I would not have the wonderful children I have, I would not have as many friends as I have, I would not have had the career I have had, and I certainly would not be here today.
Science has been my life, and I have been lucky to have the opportunity to wake up every morning excited about my work and curious about the next adventure. On my next birthday, I will turn 80, and I still hope to find that intangible holy grail.
Your recognition tonight energizes me and encourages me to continue searching. I started my career in those dark days in Romania with little but ambition and youthful exuberance on my side. I now live in a free country, and I still have the ambition—and on a good day a little exuberance.
Thank you again for this honor, and thank you for your attention.