Memoir

Michel Boudart

Stanford University

June 18, 1924 - May 2, 2012


Election Year: 1975
Scientific Discipline: Chemistry
Membership Type: Member

Michel Boudart was the guiding force in the field of heterogeneous catalysis for more than 40 years, distinguished by his repeated contributions to the conceptual, quantitative, and molecular understanding of fundamental catalytic chemistry. In particular, his elegantly stated concepts of quantitative reaction kinetics, his experimental observation of catalytic sites and new catalytic materials, and the activities of his former students and postdocs around the world continue to shape the field.

Heterogeneous catalysis is key to the efficient production of environmentally friendly fuels, advanced materials, and the commodity chemicals and fertilizers that have resulted in a steady growth in the world’s food supply.

Foremost among Boudart’s many scientific contributions to catalysis throughout his career was the quantitation of catalytic-reaction kinetics, in particular the following three concepts: 
    Measurement of the reaction rate in terms of turnover frequencies
    Specification of reaction steps by means of their reversibility and degree of kinetic control
    Rigorous microkinetic analysis to reveal the key steps in a reaction sequence and to remove artifacts that obscure the real catalytic action.

Boudart was born in Brussels, Belgium, into a family linked to the chemical industry. His father, François Boudart, was president of the Fédération des Industries Chimiques de Belgique and closely associated with the Union Chimique Belge, a major international chemical and pharmaceutical company. Michel himself majored in chemistry at the University of Louvain, receiving his BS in 1945 and MS in 1947. His family urged him to complete his PhD in Belgium and take a prominent place in the Belgian chemical world, but he opted to go to the United States and continue his graduate studies at Princeton University.

After receiving his PhD in 1950, despite persistent family pressure to return to Belgium Boudart decided to build a life in the United States, and he accepted a faculty position at Princeton as research associate at the Forrestal Center. In 1954, he formally joined Princeton’s Department of Chemical Engineering as an assistant professor, and in 1958 he was promoted to associate professor. In 1962, Boudart joined Stanford University’s Department of Chemical Engineering, which remained his home for the rest of his career. He was ultimately appointed the first William M. Keck, Sr., Professor of Chemical Engineering at Stanford.

One of Boudart’s most telling legacies was the extent of his scientific family. Shortly after his retirement in 1994, former associates constructed his scientific “family tree,” which showed that he had 69 scientific children and 414 grandchildren.

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