I was fortunate in my early career to work with many inspirational chemical engineers. At Cambridge my PhD supervisor was David Harrison, and John Davidson organised my post-doctoral research fellowship, though he was mostly busy then with the Flixborough enquiry. When John heard that I had accepted a job at the Shell laboratory in Amsterdam, he approved: “you’ll meet good people there – van Deemter, Zuiderweg…”. Indeed, I did meet very good people! My new boss in the Equipment Engineering department was Hans Wesselingh, who introduced himself cheerily on my first day. Frits himself had recently left the lab to become professor at the TU Delft, and I soon discovered that many Dutch university departments included Shell alumni in their professorial ranks. Hans, with his outstanding teaching ability, presently joined Zuiderweg at Delft, later moving to Groningen University. I soon met Frits at Delft, and came to value his inspirational insights.
The Equipment Engineering department at Amsterdam, formed under Zuiderweg’s leadership in 1964, covered most topics in chemical engineering. This included particle technology, fluid flow, separations, reactor and thermal engineering, but corners could be found where people were doing fascinating work on acoustics, electrostatics, foaming and much else unconventional. Frits’ concept was to pursue applied research in close contact with operations and technical functions, but also to maintain effort on developing underpinning fundamental and scientific ideas. This philosophy had proven strikingly successful, and the department made many innovations in technology, as well as supplying a stream of trained engineers to the company. The facilities at the lab were excellent. For example, Frits had promoted the idea of a 2.5m diameter Tray Test Column, in which novel internals could be developed for distillation and absorption service. Experimentation at this scale does not come cheap, but then the rewards were great, as he recognised.
Distillation was Frits’ speciality, but he personally also did important work in liquid/liquid extraction and on the theory of chromatography (with van Deemter and Klinkenberg). His publications only report some of his contributions – his interests were broad. He was a superb chairman of technical meetings because he had such wide experience and a genuine interest in physical phenomena. For many years he was Chair of the EFCE’s working party on Distillation, Absorption and Extraction (now named Fluid Separations), encouraging and advising colleagues from many countries and backgrounds. As a consultant to FRI (Fractionation Research Incorporated, an industrial research club) he introduced a more science-based interpretation of equipment performance which has become general – the philosophy of his work at Amsterdam and Delft.
He himself had started his career as a laboratory technician, missing most formal post-school education due to the wartime situation in Holland. He was therefore delighted when the University of Twente awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1981, and his acceptance speech, on his work and its wider context, was a tour de force. And as he later remarked: “well, now I have a university degree!”
List image credit: Van Rijn photography / Shutterstock.com
This story has been contributed by Past President Richard Darton