NU symposium honors chemist Vladimir Nikolayevich Ipatieff who helped win World War II

By Lakshmi Chandrasekaran

Chemists Vladimir Nikolayevich Ipatieff and Herman Pines, both immigrants to America, put their brilliant minds to work creating a special aviation fuel, a closely guarded secret that helped the Allied forces win World War II.

Ipatieff developed the field of surface catalysis used extensively in refining petroleum by-products into fuel components. Ipatieff is regarded as one of the fathers of catalysis – a means to accelerate chemical reactions by adding an additional substance called a catalyst.

The Center for Catalysis and Surface Science (CCSS) and Institute of Sustainability and Energy (ISEN) at Northwestern hosted a symposium honoring Ipatieff on Sept. 7 as part of his 150th birthday celebrations, and focused on his pioneering scientific contributions.

Ipatieff’s life history reads like a war-time thriller. Born in Russia, he studied chemistry and initially worked in Petersburg with explosives and metals, especially handy during the WWI, when he served as a lieutenant general. He continued to work in Russia after the October revolution and civil war that placed the Bolsheviks in power.

The successful transition of Ipatieff from an official and general under Russia’s last Czar to “a highly respected and trusted scientific director and adviser under the Soviets is to be attributed to his singleness of interest in his first and continuing love of chemistry,” according to a book review of a memoir Ipatieff wrote and simply titled “The Life of a Chemist.”

However, given his past alliance with the Czarist army, Ipatieff started feeling increasingly anxious about the communist uprising by the late 1920s. In 1930, Ipatieff left Russia with his wife and came to United States, where he became a professor of chemistry at Northwestern and also worked for Universal Oil Products (UOP). Well into his sixties by the time he immigrated, his 300 publications, 90 patents and 36 honors and awards after joining Northwestern University stand testament to his extremely productive and illustrious career.

Ipatieff started the high-pressure catalysis laboratory at Northwestern, leading to the establishment of CCSS in 1985 (which celebrated it’s 30th anniversary in 2015) long after his death. To honor Ipatieff, the American Chemical Society instituted the Ipatieff prize honoring chemists under the age of 40. The Ipatieff prize is awarded to an individual to recognize “outstanding chemical experimental work in the field of catalysis or high pressure”.

And CCSS established the Ipatieff lectureship, awarded annually “alternating each year between national and international chemists, because catalysis is rapidly evolving and is an international field,” said Kenneth Poepplemeier, director of CCSS, who presented the opening remarks on Ipatieff’s numerous research contributions. Mike Wasielewski, the executive director of ISEN highlighted the institute’s role in organizing its resources in a manner that benefits everyone including researchers, students and also the society via public engagement.

The meeting highlighted one of the success stories within CCSS – the Institute for Catalysis in Energy Processes (ICEP) initiation by Peter Stair, chair of the Department of Chemistry at Northwestern University in 1988. ICEP is currently funded by the Department of Energy and evolved out of the Institute for Environmental Catalysis funded by the National Science Foundation. The idea behind ICEP has been to bring together more than 20 faculty members and their teams into a collaborative network.

ICEP’s productivity is evidenced by contributions in catalysis science to developments such as the fundamental understanding of catalysis, figuring out complex reaction pathways, development of new catalyst synthesis, among others. In the future, the institute will “continue to build on Northwestern’s unique concentration of expertise in catalytic materials design,” said Justin Notestein, associate professor of chemical engineering, who joined ICEP as its co-principal investigator.

Susannah Scott, the 2017 Ipatieff lecturer kicked off the Ipatieff Sesquicentennial symposium lectures. Scott, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Santa Barbara, designs catalysts that can customize molecules into new materials. And some of the molecules are derived from fossil fuels. “We take alkanes and olefins that come from oil and turn them into polymers and similar materials,” said Scott, whose projects also deals with environmental cleanup where catalysts are used to remove pollutants such as automotive and diesel emissions. “Catalysis in the case of emissions is used to destroy things rather than make things. It works in both directions,” said Scott.

2017 Ipatieff lecturer Susannah Scott flanked by CCSS Director Kenneth Poepplemeier (left) and ISEN Executive Director Mike Wasielewski (right), at  North Point, Northwestern University. (Lakshmi Chandrasekaran/MEDILL)

The symposium hosted multiple speakers from universities across the country. To honor the work of Ipatieff, professor Wolfgang Sachtler, who passed away this year, the University of California, Berkeley’s chemical engineering professor Enrique Iglesia gave a lecture. Sachtler was well known for his research contributions to heterogeneous catalysis, an essential technology for the production of fuels and chemicals. Iglesia’s research also in the field of heterogeneous catalysis, deals with chemical kinetics and in the talk he addressed the mechanistic challenges in removing oxygen atoms from molecules, to form new carbon-carbon bonds at a faster rate.

These new compounds would then be synthesized into fuels and commercialized, leading to greater energy efficiency. Iglesia who is the recipient of several top awards and honors was also the 2004 Ipatieff lecturer.

From Left to Right- Wolfgang Sachtler (1924-2017). He was CCSS director 1985-1994 and the named Ipatieff Professor from 1980-1999. Robert Burwell (1912-2003) was named Ipatieff Professor from 1970-1980. Herman Pines (1902-1996) was the first Ipatieff professor from 1952-1970. They’re in front of the portrait of Vladimir Ipatieff (1867-1952) that’s hanging on the 2nd floor of the catalysis building. (Courtesy of CCSS Archive)

Natural sciences incorporate dynamic processes, making it harder to design experiments and analyze their results in a meaningful way. Enter mathematical modeling, the rescuer that can be used to make insightful predictions. Charles Campbell, professor of Chemistry at the University of Washington, a AAAS fellow and 2010 Ipatieff lecturer. He talked about computational catalysis where he studies the degrees of rate control in chemical reactions using math and computational models as part of an effort to improve the catalyst design.

“Computational catalysis discovery is going to be a big part of catalysis research,” said Campbell, highlighting the importance of combining experimental and theoretical research studies. As cited in one of Campbell’s research papers, “There have been many successes already in high-throughput computational screening to accelerate the discovery of new catalyst material.”

Tobin Marks, the Ipatieff professor of catalytic chemistry  who also holds a professorship in Material Sciences and Engineering at Northwestern, presented the final lecture of the series. Marks’ research involves investigating why the addition of certain compounds to a catalytic surface greatly enhances their functionality.

“This involves a delicate interplay between sterics (the spatial arrangement of atoms in a molecule), electronics and dynamics. And that’s what makes them so hard to understand,” said Marks. Understanding these reactions is particularly useful when it comes to detoxification of fuels and designing next generation catalysts. Starting his 48th year as a chemistry professor at Northwestern University, Marks reflected upon his long and illustrious career noting, “There are many things yet to be learned, that’s what makes this field fun. We work with talented post-docs, faculty members, students and that’s what makes being a university professor so satisfying.”

Earlier this month, President Trump announced his move to kill the Obama-era immigration policy – Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), causing anguish to nearly a million people known as the “Dreamers” who came to the United States as children and could face potential deportation if new legislation isn’t passed to protect them. And yet, it was the United States that proved to be an immigrant-safe haven welcoming Ipatieff and Pines, a Russian and Polish-Jew respectively.

“I hope we reflect for a moment about how these dreamers of long ago reached our land, stayed here, made our lives so much better and left us so much of science for us to use today. In the same spirit as Susannah Scott, I want to thank this country for taking me in as an immigrant,” said Iglesia.

Photo at top: Herman Pines (left) and Vladimir Ipatieff created an innovative airplane fuel that helped the Allies win World War II. (CCSS Archive/Northwestern University)