Remembering Robert K. Grasselli: Reflections on Three Decades of Collaboration on Complex Oxides for Selective Oxidation

Meeting Program – February 2018

Doug Buttrey
Douglas J. Buttrey
Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering,
University of Delaware


Robert GrasselliAbstract – In this presentation, I will pay tribute to the late Robert K. Grasselli, a truly extraordinary scientist who served as a dedicated mentor to many industrial scientists and engineers, as well as a number of academics, such as myself. The primary focus of his research was on improving generations of complex oxide catalysts for production of acrylonitrile by ammoxidation of propylene through much of his career, and of propane in the later years. The Sohio chemical catalysis group, which Grasselli lead for many years, succeeded in developing and steadily improving the revolutionary SOHIO process for using multicomponent bismuth molybdates to produce a 50-fold increase in production of acrylonitrile, a platform chemical used for making synthetic fibers and ABS plastics. He became Senior Science Fellow at the Sohio Company in Cleveland, and ended his career there in 1985 after about 25 years of service. This was followed by 3 years as Director of the Chemistry Division at the Office of Naval Research. From there, he moved to Mobil Research and Development Corporation in Princeton, where he worked until 1995.

Robert Grasselli was inducted into the US National Academy of Engineering in 1995. In 1996, the Sohio acrylonitrile process was recognized as the 11th National Historic Chemical Landmark by the ACS. For this work, Grasselli was admitted to the US Engineering and Science Hall of Fame.

Also in 1996, Grasselli became an adjunct professor in the Center for Catalytic Science and Technology at the University of Delaware; simultaneously, he was appointed as Guest Professor of Physical and Catalytic Chemistry at the University of Munich. He developed a number of collaborations throughout the world with William A. Goddard (CalTech), Sir John Meurig Thomas (Cambridge), Arne Andersson (Lund), Johannes Lercher (Vienna and Trieste), Ferruccio Trifiro (Bologne) and many others, including myself. I will discuss our collaborative work starting with the bismuth molybdates beginning in 1984 and, from 2002 onward, on the Mo-V-Nb-Te-O bronze “M1” catalyst for ammoxidation of propane to acrylonitrile.

Biography – Douglas J. Buttrey is a professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in the Center for Catalytic Science and Technology, with an affiliated appointment in Materials Science and Engineering, at the University of Delaware. He received his PhD degree from the Purdue University in 1984, and subsequently held the Sohio Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in the Department of Physical Chemistry at Cambridge University in 1984-85. He was a visiting assistant professor at Purdue University with a 3-way joint appointment in the Department of Chemistry, Department of Physics and Astronomy, and the School of Materials Science and Engineering from 1986-87, before moving to the University of Delaware. He is the co-author of 100 journal publications with over 5,700 citations.