Charles W. Tobias, UC Berkeley professor and father of electrochemical engineering, has died at the age of 75

by Robert Sanders

Berkeley -- Charles William Tobias, the founding father of electrochemical engineering and former professor and chair of chemical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, died Wednesday, March 6, at his home in Orinda, Calif., after a long struggle with emphysema. He was 75.

A native of Hungary, Tobias took a field that deals with the effects of electricity on chemical reactions and with electricity produced by chemical reactions -- the best known practical examples are batteries and electroplating -- and gave it a sound scientific footing.

Where before it was almost an art, he detailed the processes involved and quantified them, thereby laying the foundation for advances we take for granted today, such as long-lasting lithium batteries.

Among his many research projects, he studied ozone production in electrochemical cells, investigated the electrical deposition of alloys and metals, studied electrochemical machining of hard alloys, and looked at how reactive metals are deposited on electrodes.

In 1954 he also founded an electrochemical research program at the Ernest O. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which over the years made advances that contributed to longer lasting batteries and batteries with greater storage capacities and greater energy concentrations. He held an appointment at the Berkeley lab as a principal investigator and later as a faculty senior scientist.

Tobias influenced the lives of many students and faculty members at Berkeley who thought of him as a role model and friend. During his Berkeley career he supervised 72 graduate students, 34 of whom received a

PhD. A large proportion of all electrochemical engineers in this country are his former students or students of his students.

"He was not only a scholar, but also a man of enormous charm, wit and human understanding whose presence helped shape the spirit and substance of the Department of Chemical Engineering," said Alexis T. Bell, dean of the UC Berkeley College of Chemistry.

"A true Renaissance Man, beloved by students and colleagues alike, he will be greatly missed," said former student and colleague Rolf H. Muller, a retired lecturer in the Department of Chemical Engineering and a former senior staff chemical engineer at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

A member of the National Academy of Engineering since 1983, Tobias received numerous honors during his 44-year career. Among these were the Vittoria de Nora-Diamond Shamrock Award of the Electrochemical Society in 1990, and The Founders Award in 1991 from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. He also served as president of the Electrochemical Society (1970-71) and as president of the International Society for Electrochemistry (1977-78).

He was elected an honorary member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 1993. Upon his retirement from UC Berkeley in 1991 he received the campus's highest honor, the Berkeley Citation.

Born in Budapest on Nov. 2, 1920, Tobias attended the University of Technical Sciences there, from which he obtained a diploma (1942) and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering (1946). He escaped to the U.S. in 1947 just as the communists were taking over Hungary, and headed for UC Berkeley, where he pursued postdoctoral studies and worked as an instructor in the newly formed Department of Chemical Engineering. He became an assistant professor in 1950, and was appointed a full professor in 1960.

Tobias chaired the chemical engineering department from 1967 until 1972, and served as acting dean of the College of Chemistry in 1978.

He is survived by his wife, Katalin Voros of Orinda; three children -- Carla Tobias of Fremont, Calif., Anthony Tobias of Piedmont, Calif., and Eric Tobias of San Diego -- by his late first wife Marcia (Rous); two stepdaughters, Eszti Pigniczky of Cleveland, Ohio, and Reka Pigniczky of Budapest, Hungary; two grandsons; and a brother Cornelius Tobias of Eugene, Oregon.

A funeral service was held Monday, March 11, in Berkeley, with burial immediately afterward. A recital in his memory will be held later this spring.

Donations in his memory may be made to the Department of Chemical Engineering, University of California, Berkeley, or to the American Hungarian Foundation in New Brunswick, NJ.

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