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Scientists to Debate Discoveries and Forecast New Developments at WPI

Contact: Arlie Corday, WPI Media & Community Relations

WORCESTER, Mass. - What is the future of planet Earth? Can we stop polluting our environment? Can we discover new technologies that will improve the quality of life?

These kinds of questions have sparked a new forum for scientific debate at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. The Department of Chemical Engineering has announced the first in a series of Distinguished Lectureships in Chemical Engineering. Sponsored by Procter and Gamble Co., the lectures will be held annually with the objective of bringing together scientists who have made outstanding contributions to various fields of chemical engineering.

The first Distinguished Lectureship, which expects 200 attendees from the frontlines of scientific research, will be held Saturday, April 29, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Fuller Laboratories' Perreault Lecture Hall on WPI's Worcester, Mass., campus. The topic is "Surface Science in Catalysis: A Knowledge Base for Discovery." Catalysis, in laymen's terms, shows the acceleration of any chemical reaction when affected by a catalyst (a substance that affects such a reaction without itself being essentially altered).

"Catalysis is the area of technology that controls almost all industrial processes," explained conference organizer William Moser, professor of chemical engineering at WPI. "It is the most important technology we have and amounts to an industry worth several billion dollars a year. Much of catalytic research today is involved with the goal of removal of pollutants from the environment."

This technology has led, among other developments, to new automobiles that are gas-and-electric-powered hybrids. "You will eventually have a chemical plant in a car that is generating electricity," Moser said.

Speakers for the April event include internationally known experts Michel Boudart of Stanford University, Gerhard Ertl of the Fritz-Haber Institute in Berlin and Gabor Somorjai of the University of California at Berkeley. Ertl and Somorjai will share their discoveries, ideas, conclusions and expectations for the future. Boudart will moderate the discussions after each presentation and offer his analysis of the status of the field.

For this and all future Distinguished Lectureships, the focus is new science and technology. The discussion will take the form of an intensive but scholarly debate on the merits of discoveries and a forecast of their importance to future developments. In addition to keynote speakers, leading scientists will participate in the debate.

"It is hoped that building the symposium around a scholarly debate will initiate a new and more effective method of scientific exchange," said Moser. "We want to debate the future, to debate the technology that each of these people will present. This will allow us to interpret it and to decide its validity. We want to encourage people to ask the tough questions about technology."

Chemicals are the building blocks of everything that exists, Moser pointed out.

"Today, we have an incredible lifestyle generated by chemical engineering and especially by catalysis," he said. "Now those same technologies are going to be used to save the environment."

The symposium will include a poster competition for students of chemical engineering, who will display their studies and findings for review. The event is one of the legacies Moser will impart to WPI when he retires from teaching later this spring. For more information, contact Moser at 508-831-5666, or by e-mail at wmoser@wpi.edu.