AMHERST, Mass. - Vladimir Haensel, chemical engineering professor at the University of Massachusetts, has been named a recipient of the Charles Stark Draper Prize. The award, presented by the National Academy of Engineering, is the engineering profession’s highest honor. This year the prize carries an honorarium of $450,000, its largest ever. Haensel is the first UMass faculty member to receive this honor.
Haensel, 83, is the inventor of "Platforming" - a revolutionary chemical engineering process essential in producing clean fuel for transportation and in supplying materials to the modern plastics industry. The process uses pellets of platinum, one of the world’s most precious metals, to drastically speed up certain chemical reactions, efficiently converting petroleum to high-performance fuels. The technique is widely considered to be one of the most significant in chemical engineering within the past 50 years, and had a role in the Allied forces winning World War II, as the new fuels allowed Allied airplanes and ground forces to travel farther.
Platforming also creates cleaner-burning fuel, eliminating the need to add lead to gasoline. The process has reduced this nation’s reliance on foreign oil, and saved billions of dollars in transportation costs, according to the National Academy of Engineering. More than 190 million cars, trucks, and buses consume nearly 133 billion gallons of gasoline high-octane gasoline produced through Platforming provides 35 percent more mileage. The trademarked process also generates large quantities of "aromatic hydrocarbons," which are the raw materials used in the manufacturing of plastics.
"Val is an amazing person," said Joseph I. Goldstein, dean of the College of Engineering at UMass. "He contributed at the highest level of research, but he equally loved to be in the classroom. He’s a warm person and was a major factor in making chemical engineering and the College of Engineering nationally prominent."
"We are all delighted at the recognition of Val’s spectacular professional accomplishments with this most prestigious award," added Michael Malone, head of the chemical engineering department. "It is a tribute both to Val and to the previous winners to add his name to the list of awardees. Our greatest joy is that Val has taught a generation of our students, sharing his remarkable experience and his insights into the creative and fulfilling nature of engineering research."
Born in Germany, Haensel spent his early youth in Moscow, Russia, and emigrated to the United States at age 16. He was educated at Northwestern University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then joined the UMass faculty in 1980, at age 66, following 42 years in industry. His career in industry was as a researcher and later vice president of science and technology at Universal Oil Products (UOP) in Des Plaines, Ill.
Haensel’s teaching career has been underscored by his mentoring of undergraduates. To mark his 80th birthday in 1994, the chemical engineering department established a scholarship fund for undergraduates from minority backgrounds. He was awarded the Chancellor’s Outstanding Teacher Award in 1994. He plans to retire in August of 1998.
"I don’t think there is any relationship in one’s professional life that is more important than having a mentor early in your life, having someone who is willing to spend time knowing what you already are, and challenging you to become the things you aren’t- yet," Haensel said in a 1995 interview with Engineering News. He is also known for his indefatigable enthusiasm for science: "Science isn’t about facts, and it’s not even about mastering the physical world and it’s certainly not about what it is in danger of becoming - some sort of means of fixing some corporation’s bottom-line dilemma," he said. "Science is about amazement and curiosity and beauty. It’s about magic! ... Work to produce something important. Do something new. Do something interesting, something that makes you want to shout out loud when you’ve ‘got it,’" he said. "Life is too darn amazing - and too short - for anything less."
Haensel has won a slate of prestigious awards, including the Professional Progress Award of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (which notes the most outstanding research contributions from a scientist younger than 45); the Perkin Medal in 1967; and the National Medal of Science National Academy of Sciences; the National Academy of Engineering; and was the first recipient of the National Academy of Sciences Award for Chemistry in Service to Society. He has been granted more than 145 U.S. patents and 450 foreign patents.
The Draper Prize is endowed by the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory Inc., of Cambridge. Charles "Doc" Draper was the father of modern guidance systems used in aircraft, space vehicles, strategic missiles, and submarines. He also developed the sophisticated navigational system that landed the Apollo astronauts on the moon and returned them safely to Earth. The Draper Prize was established in 1988 to recognize individuals whose outstanding engineering achievements have contributed to the well-being and freedom of all humanity. The biennial prize honors particularly those rare individuals who were able to take an idea, develop it, and put it into practice.
NOTE: Chair of the committee selecting the winner of the 1997 Charles Stark Draper Prize was Paul C. Jennings, professor of civil engineering and applied mechanics, California Institute of Technology. Also serving on the committee was Joseph G. Gavin Jr., former president of the Grumman Corp., who now lives in Amherst, Mass., with his wife Dorothy Dunklee Gavin, Class of ’43.