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Letters to the Editor

To the Editor

I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed the new WPI magazine.

I never read a WPI magazine before, unless it included an article on someone I knew. You have now produced a really worthwhile publication. Congratulations. It is an enormous improvement over anything WPI has produced previously.

Andrew Montelli '82
Weston, Conn.

To the Editor

I was delighted to receive the Winter 2002 issue of Transformations. WPI needs to get its educational story told. I have been getting letters from some of my recent students, now in various colleges across the country, and from my former WPI students, whose children are now in college.

What intrigues me is the increased interest in emphasis on the kind of hands-on courses and the number of project-type programs these young people are now taking.

While few institutions would want to acknowledge that their programs had their genesis in some other institution, I wish there was a way to let other people know of the source.

I have been gone long enough so that most of the names mentioned in your articles are unknown to me. Still, I am delighted that WPI people are still making a difference in the lives of other people, and it is always a pleasure to find a name or two in the class notes that bring back memories of those I once knew while I was there.

John van Alstyne
Ashville, N.C.
Former Dean of Academic Advising and Professor of Mathematics

To the Editor:

Never was the timing so right as now for WPI to declare and expand on its commitment to a better future for its students, and for the world they will help create. In my opinion, we are on the doorstep of a world about to be literally transformed from what we now know and the way we now live.

Your new journal, Transformations, speaks of a WPI that is fully aware of this transformation and ready to help lead the way in education and production. I could not have been more pleased with the message you wove into the fabric of your inaugural issue. Nor could I have been more delighted with the tone and with the force of its intelligence.

I have always loved WPI, and now you know why. You surround me with wonderful people.

Charles M. Zettek
Planning Consultant

To the Editor:

I have a couple of issues to raise relative to the articles in the Winter 2002 issue about automobile propulsion ("Thinking Small").

One, the article made no mention that MTBE [an oxygenate added to some gasolines] is a recognized carcinogen, and that it is turning up in the ground water in California. In fact, the state is so concerned that they are phasing it out as an auto fuel additive.

Two, everybody is talking about the fuel cell nirvana, but I have yet to see anywhere the source of all the hydrogen that is assumed to be the utterly pollution-free fuel. How is all this hydrogen to be produced, and what will be the environmental implications of its production? Will it be like ethanol, which consumes more energy in its production than it contains when they get through making it?

And three, if gasoline is to be the fuel of choice for fuel cells, what will happen to all the other goodies after the hydrogen is extracted? I thought one of the virtues of the fuel cell was that it would reduce our dependence on Middle Eastern oil. This doesn't look like the way to accomplish that.

L. C. Brautigam '49
Kensington, Conn.

Ravindra Datta, head of WPI's Chemical Engineering Department and director of its Fuel Cell Center, responds:

I'd like to address Mr. Brautigam's second two points. The source of the hydrogen for fuel cells would depend on the application. For home and stationary applications, it would most likely be natural gas; for automobiles, it would probably be gasoline or similar hydrocarbons. Renewable fuels, such as ethanol, might also be used. There is considerable controversy on the net energy balance in the production of anhydrous ethanol (which involves the removal of 90 percent of the water by volume via distillation of fermentation broths). However, fuel cells can use ethanol from which only 40 to 50 percent of the water has been removed, resulting in an energy savings.

Although the reforming processes that produce hydrogen from other fuels will undoubtedly generate some pollutants, including carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas), fuel cells are about twice as efficient as internal combustion engines. They will, therefore, use less petroleum, extending the fossil fuel reserves, and produce dramatically lower levels of pollutants. However, the best long-term solution may be to use renewable fuels or produce hydrogen directly from water and sunlight, using solar cells or biocatalysts.

To the Editor:

I don't wish to disparage the many accomplishments of Robert Stempel '65, former chairman of General Motors ("Recharged," Winter 2002). However, crediting him with the invention of the catalytic converter deserves further investigation.

In 1953 and 1954, I was chief engineer and plant manager of Oxycatalyst Inc. in Wayne, Pa. This company was the brainchild of Eugene Houdry, a French chemical engineer who was a major contributor to the catalytic cracking of gasoline to improve yield and octane rating of motor fuels. Houdry came to the United States in the late 1930s, sponsored by Sun Oil and Standard Oil of New Jersey. Together, they revolutionized gasoline refining processes.

Following World War II, in the late 1940s, Houdry turned to the problem of automobile exhaust, founding Oxycatalyst to conduct research and development and manufacturing of his concepts. When I worked there in 1953, Oxycatalyst has developed a practical and effective catalytic converter using finely divided platinum deposited on a ceramic base—essentially the structure of most catalytic converters in use today. Unfortunately for Oxycatalyst, these required the use of unleaded gasoline or LPG to avoid poisoning the catalyst.

Oxycatalyst made a poor business decision that ended the company. Houdry believed that a successful converter would have to handle leaded fuel, because the world would not give up cheap high-octane gasoline. Most of our research efforts were directed to developing a catalyst that would not be poisoned by lead, and could be made from metals less costly than platinum. In almost 50 years, these goals have not been achieved and the catalytic converter today is quite similar, in all respects, to the unit of 1953.

Eventually, in the 1960s, Oxycatalyst sold its extensive patent rights to the auto manufacturers, including General Motors, who were under increasing government pressure to reduce air pollution.

Despite his lack of commercial success, Eugene Houdry should be credited with the creation and reduction to practice of the catalytic converter. The patent record should show this. His was another sad example of a good idea born before its time. Please help to set the record straight.

Nicholas M. Peitzel '79 (M.S.)
Boylston, Mass.

Robert Stempel responds:

Mr. Peitzel is quite correct. There was considerable work done on catalysts before they were successfully introduced on vehicles to con-trol exhaust emissions. The team at General Motors looked closely at catalysts used in the chemical and petroleum refinery processes, as well as at the work of Houdry. We did work with the refiners to get the lead out of gasoline starting in 1971, knowing that lead would render the catalysts inoperative, as shown by Houdry and others. Many other things had to change, including the special stainless steel to contain the catalyst, the exhaust flow over and through the catalyst for maximum exhaust cleanup, and so on.

Catalytic converters were invented long before the GM team developed the multidimensional solution that allowed the device to be used in the harsh automotive environment to reduce exhaust emissions over the life of the car. With hundreds of millions of catalytic converters in use since 1975, millions of tons of hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide have been eliminated from the atmosphere, along with the virtual elimination of airborne lead particulates.

Mr. Peitzel also notes that lead additives made low-cost, high-octane fuel possible (an invention of the GM Research Labs that led to the formation of the Ethyl Corporation). Thanks to continuing inventiveness, low-cost, high-octane lead-free fuel is available today, permitting the higher compression ratios found on many of today's low-emission, low-fuel-consumption vehicles.

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