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Michel Boudart, chemical engineer and expert in catalysis, dies at 87

His influence shaped catalysis during the post-war period when energy, defense and space industries demanded a deeper understanding of chemical reactions.

Michel Boudart, chemical engineer and expert in catalysis, dies at 87

May 7, 2012

Michel Boudart, a professor emeritus of chemical engineering at Stanford University and for five decades one of the world’s leading experts in catalysis, died May 2 at an assisted living center in Palo Alto, California, of multiple organ failure. He was 87.

Boudart was the first William M. Keck, Sr. Professor of Chemical Engineering and one of a very few individuals who were responsible for establishing the reputation of Stanford’s chemical engineering department. The central theme of his research was the catalytic properties of metals, particularly small metal particles. 

Boudart

Boudart essentially brought catalysis, as a science, to chemical engineering in the United States. He was an international ambassador for the field over his entire career.

“Michel Boudart was a world renowned and influential expert in the field of catalysis who brought the Stanford University chemical engineering to prominence and trained several decades of students,” said Andreas Acrivos, a fellow professor at Stanford and now professor emeritus at Stanford and City College of CUNY. “He left a legacy that would be difficult to replicate.”

As a professor, Boudart supervised what was consistently one of the larger groups of PhD candidates in the department, eventually guiding over 70 doctoral candidates to their degrees and mentoring over 100 post-doctoral candidates and visiting scientists. The diaspora of his former students would go on to lead and shape the field.

Le plus de saveur

An avid international traveller, Boudart and his wife, Marina, boasted friends across the world. His office sported Japanese shoji screens, abstract prints,  overstuffed sofas and – occupying one entire wall – an immense periodic table of the elements, printed in Russian, which he read with ease.

In a brief biography, Boudart cited as his personal philosophy a quote from French literary theorist Roland Barthes: “Nul pouvoir, un peu de savoir, un peu de sagesse, et le plus de saveur possible.” Translated loosely, it reads: “No power, a little knowledge, a little wisdom, and as much flavor as possible.” In this context, he will always be remembered as a man of real personal charisma and one of the last “gentleman scientists.”

Catalysis is the study of chemical processes by which one substance, the catalyst, promotes a reaction among other substances without itself changing. 

In the post-war era, the United States became the acknowledged leader in the field, mostly owing to advances flowing out of American academia and industry. Boudart was at the center of it all. He was an unabashed champion of catalysis. Though the field is obscure to most lay audiences, catalysis has a profound impact on our world and how we live. It is fundamental to the chemical, petroleum and pharmaceutical industries, among many others. 

In a published interview, Boudart once laid out his case: Without catalysis, he said, “Our satellites could not be maneuvered, our autos would pour out all the noxious chemicals we've spent years guarding against. Our telephone links with the rest of the world would be seriously impeded.”

In 1974, in the wake of the first oil crisis, Boudart and two associates founded Catalytica in Santa Clara, California, which worked on highly complex catalytic problems for petrochemical, chemical, and pharmaceutical firms as well as government agencies. He served as a consultant to numerous well-known companies.

"[Catalytica] started in the catalysis consulting field, a service made clearly necessary by the oil crisis," Boudart said at the time. "One of the critical areas was in synthetic fuels." The company grew over the following three decades into a number of subsidiaries. By 2000, the pharmaceutical subsidiary, Catalytica Pharmaceuticals, Inc., was the largest supplier to the pharmaceutical industry in North America. 

“Michel’s catalytic insights were essential to the formation of Catalytica, and his scientific rigor became a hallmark of the company throughout its growth,” said Ricardo Levy, one of Michel’s PhD students and co-founder of Catalytica. “He imprinted this standard in all his students.”

Guiding force

Accolades and awards were showered on Boudart throughout his life, but particularly in the later years of his career, when the scale of his impact became clear. 

In 1985, the University of Utah hosted a five-day symposium on catalysis solely in Boudart’s honor. In 2005, the Journal of Physical Chemistry dedicated an entire issue to Boudart’s legacy. 

In their introduction, the journal’s editors wrote, “Michel Boudart has been the guiding force in the field of heterogeneous catalysis for more than forty years. He was known for elegantly stated concepts and his elucidation of catalytic sites, his experimental studies of new catalytic materials, and the activities of [his] many students and collaborators …”

The journal cited his foremost achievement as the quantification of catalysis as rigorous sequences of elementary steps. He focused attention on the need to report reaction rates evaluated under the most rigorous assessment techniques available and he introduced the concept of turnover rate – the number of molecules converted per site per second. He then perfected precise protocols for accurate measurement of reactions. 

Boudart’s insistence on rigorous collection and reporting of data proved invaluable in comparing data generated by different laboratories throughout the world and enabled many subsequent advances in the field. His vision, leadership, and wisdom were credited as a major force in bringing catalysis to a point where the design of specific catalytic materials for environmental protection, production of chemicals, and energy conversion processes became possible. 

In 2006, the Danish company Haldor Topsøe sponsored The Michel Boudart Award for the Advancement of Catalysis, which is administered jointly by the North American Catalysis Society and the European Federation of Catalysis Societies.

Profound legacy

Michel Boudart was born on 18 June 1924 in Brussels, Belgium. In 1940, as Hitler’s Panzer divisions blitzkrieged his homeland, Boudart was just 16. He had been accepted to the University of Louvain, but the university was closed due to the war. 

In order not to be drafted or sent to German factories, Boudart worked as a volunteer stretcher-bearer for the Red Cross. Meanwhile, he had private tutoring to prepare for Louvain. When the university reopened, Boudart graduated in three years at the top of every class, save mathematics, where he was outdone only by his dear friend, the late Professor Rene de Vogelaere of the University of California, Berkeley.

Boudart earned his B.S. at the University of Louvain in 1944 and his M.S. in 1947. He then left Belgium to attend Princeton University, where he took his Ph.D. in chemistry in 1950. 

After earning his doctorate, Boudart held faculty positions at Princeton until 1961 and, for three years, at Berkeley, before joining the Stanford faculty in 1964. He was Chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering at Stanford from 1975 to 1978. He also held visiting professorships at the Universities of Louvain, Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo, and Paris. He became professor emeritus in 1994.

“He and his wife Marina were born in Belgium and were knighted by the crown, but America was their adopted home,” said Acrivos. “Their children are thoroughly American.”

Boudart authored or coauthored over 280 journal articles and served on the editorial boards of at least ten journals. His book, Kinetics of Chemical Processes, is a standard reference and was translated into Japanese, Spanish, and French. His book, Kinetics of Heterogeneous Catalytic Processes, written with G. Djega-Mariadassou, was published in French in 1982 and translated to English in 1984. He was coeditor-in-chief of Catalysis Science and Technology, a series of eleven volumes. And, with wife Marina, also a Belgian, and René Bryssinck, Boudart co-authored Modern Belgium in 1980.

Boudart was recipient of numerous awards, among them the Wilhelm Award in Chemical Reaction Engineering from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (1974), the Kendall Award (1977) and the Murphee Award (1985) from the American Chemical Society, and the Chemical Pioneer Award (1991) of the American Institute of Chemists.

His election to both the National Academy of Science and the National Academy of Engineering were reflections of Boudart’s leadership and his scientific gravitas. He was likewise a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the California Academy of Sciences. He was a foreign member of the Academia Royale des Sciences, des Lettres et des Beaux-Arts de Belgique and its Royal Belgian Academy Council for Applied Sciences. 

Boudart received honorary doctorates from the University of Liege, the University of Notre Dame, the University of Ghent, and the Institut National Polytechnique de Lorraine.

He held four patents.

Boudart is survived by a daughter, Iris Harris, of Whittier, Calif.; three sons, Marc, of Aptos, Calif.; Baudouin, of Atherton, Calif; and Philip, of Palo Alto; and grandchildren Marina and Clint Harris; and Jesse, Louise, and Noella Boudart. His wife, Marina d’Haese Boudart, died in 2009. A second daughter, Dominique, died in childhood.