The world's most lucrative engineering award today went to Vladimir Haensel, 83, a chemical engineer who invented a catalyst that led to high-quality gasoline. The prestigious Charles Stark Draper Prize, given by the National Academy of Engineering, is worth $450,000.
Until the late 1940s, the only way to convert crude oil into gasoline was to heat it and introduce silica-alumina to catalyze the necessary chemical reactions. But that produced dirty and inefficient fuel. Enter Haensel. Working at Universal Oil Products Co. in Des Plaines, Illinois, he found that platinum could serve as a much better catalyst. The method he developed, platinum reforming or "platforming," is now at the heart of the oil-refining industry, and is used to create plastics, as well as clean-burning fuel.
"Haensel has created what can only be called a revolution in mobility," said the chairman of the Draper committee, engineer Paul Jennings of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Haensel, who immigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union in 1928, got his engineering education at Northwestern University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Since 1980 he has taught at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.