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.