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UC Berkeley Press Release

Eugene Petersen, specialist in catalytic reactions, has died at 81

– Eugene Edward Petersen, a professor emeritus of chemical engineering in the University of California, Berkeley's College of Chemistry, died Oct. 27 after a short battle with cancer. He was 81.

Petersen, a resident of Lafayette, Calif., was a leader in the field of reaction engineering, devoting his career to understanding the key unit of a chemical plant - the chemical reactor, where reactants are transformed by catalysts into useful products.

Eugene Petersen
Eugene Petersen (Yvette Subramanian photo)

"Heterogeneous catalysis is used to change the chemical structure of starting materials to a more desired form," Petersen said in an interview upon his retirement in 1991. "The catalyst acts as an agent to make this happen much faster."

Through his development of pioneering theories and experiments, he helped transform a field that had been based on observation and experience to one based upon analytical principles. One of his longstanding interests was in determining why catalysts failed and how that failure, whether by deactivation or "poisoning," affected the active catalytic material.

"Gene's sophisticated mathematical analysis led to new ways of identifying the primary mechanism of catalyst deactivation by inspection of the shape," said colleague Alexis T. Bell, UC Berkeley professor of chemical engineering, upon Petersen's retirement.

Born and raised in Tacoma, Wash., Petersen spent 1941 as a pre-engineering student at the University of Puget Sound. He then worked as a tool-and-die-making apprentice before joining the Army, where he served three years, from 1943 to 1946. After completing his military service, he went back to college, receiving his B.S. in 1949 and M.S. in 1950 in chemical engineering from the University of Washington, followed by a Ph.D. in fuel science from Pennsylvania State University in 1953.

At UC Berkeley, Petersen joined the Division of Chemical Engineering, which later became a department, as an instructor in 1953 and steadily climbed the academic ladder, being appointed a full professor in 1965.

To further his understanding of catalyst failure, he developed the single-pellet reactor, an instrument that allows a definitive analysis of chemical, diffusional and poisoning phenomena in catalysis. This device was designed in an elegant and straightforward manner, with specific gradients that can be measured to provide information on catalytic reaction and deactivation pathways. This apparatus assisted chemical engineers in explaining the relationship between kinetics and mass transfer within catalyst pellets.

Petersen also developed a powerful theoretical model for predicting catalyst performance over its lifetime, and produced Monte-Carlo simulations of transport and chemical reaction within porous catalysts. Additionally, he was well known for developing the first detailed model of the operation of a fluid-bed reactor and its catalyst regenerator, which are important in petroleum-refining operations.

Petersen was recognized for his contributions to chemical engineering with the 1985 R. H. Wilhelm Award in Chemical Reaction Engineering from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. The award was for his unique contributions to the theory and experimental elucidation of catalyst deactivation phenomena.

He gave many invited lectures, including the prestigious Reilly Lectures at Notre Dame University, and produced more than 90 publications, including three well-received books. His 1965 milestone textbook, "Chemical Reaction Analysis," taught generations of students the sophistications inherent in catalytic reaction engineering.

Within the department, Petersen was recognized as a clear and incisive teacher. He received praise from his students for his encouragement of class discussion and creative thinking, his positive attitude toward students, and his willingness to spend time addressing their questions outside of class. Over his 38 years on the faculty, he mentored 28 master's students and 27 doctoral students, many of whom went on to illustrious careers in academia and industry.

"Gene also made many non-technical contributions," Bell was quoted as saying in a departmental publication. "As a member of the department, Gene often voiced his opinion on academic issues and the need to balance intellectual rigor against physical understanding."

Although he retired in 1991, Petersen continued to perform research and attend numerous alumni events, staying connected with the College of Chemistry and his former students. He had many interests, including horticulture, poetry and piano.

Petersen is survived by his wife of 57 years, Kathryn Dorothy Petersen; son, Richard, of San Francisco; daughter, Renee Keller, of Oakland; and several grandchildren. A memorial service was held Nov. 9 at the Faculty Club.

Contributions for scholarships in his memory may be made to the Department of Chemical Engineering, 201 Gilman Hall, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720-1462.