Chemical reactor, natural gas research earn top honor for UH professor

10/26/05

Dan Luss recipient of American Institute of Chemical Engineers Award for Outstanding Contributions

HOUSTON, Oct. 26, 2005 From avoiding explosions in chemical reactors to developing more economical methods for natural gas conversion, nearly 40 years of research by one University of Houston professor has garnered him one of the highest honors given in the field of chemical engineering.

UH Chemical Engineering Professor Dan Luss is the recipient of the 2005 Founders Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Field of Chemical Engineering from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE). The award will be given to Luss at the AIChE Annual Meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio, October 30.

Garnering more than $6.7 million in funding during his career, Luss served as principal investigator of many research projects and often collaborated with long-time colleague James T. Richardson, also a UH chemical engineering professor, on joint research endeavors. Actively focusing on various aspects of chemical reactors design, operation and control, Luss' research group deals with developing operation and control policies that prevent chemical reactors from a runaway, such as a rapid, uncontrollable temperature increase leading to an explosion. Other research projects are concerned with increasing the efficiency of chemical processes and of the large-scale synthesis of advanced ceramics, such as superconducting materials. A gas burner can have two different states. It can be either ignited or extinguished. Similarly, chemical reactors can attain several steady states, some of which produce undesired products and some leading to an excessive high temperature and explosion. The initial conditions determine which of these states is attained, just as ignition determines the state of a gas burner. One aspect of Luss' research is developing start-up procedures that will lead the reactor to the desired steady state and avoid explosions. For example, several explosions of industrial reactors have occurred due to the formation of a local hot region next to the wall of the reactor. The hot zone decreased the strength of the metal wall and this led to a crack. The release of the high pressure and temperature reactant mixtures led to explosion. Luss conducted research that predicted the conditions leading to the formation of these hot spots. That information can be used to develop operation procedures that prevent their harmful formation.

Normally, when a thermostat is set to a lower temperature, the room temperature goes down. However, in chemical reactors, a sudden decrease of the feed temperature can lead to an unexpected temperature rise and can cause an operator to take a wrong action. Luss has conducted extensive research that explained when this so-called "wrong-way behavior" occurs and how to prevent it.

There is current significant interest in converting natural gas directly to chemicals alongside the gas wells to avoid the need to transport it over a long distance. The existing commercial process for accomplishing this requires an expensive separation of oxygen from air. Luss' research aims to avoid this expensive step by use of a special membrane tube through which the oxygen from the air diffuses and reacts directly with the natural gas.

Another research activity deals with developing new, more economical processes for the large-scale production of advanced ceramic materials. He developed together with Richardson a process that enabled a large reduction in the price of producing superconducting materials. Recently, his group developed a more economical process for the production of ceramics that have important technological applications, such as components of electric and electronic devices, solid-oxide fuel cell components and color additives.

Luss has contributed significantly to education, research and professional organizations throughout his career and has served as the chair of several international professional meetings held in Houston. He received his B.S. and M.S. in chemical engineering from Technion in Israel and his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. Joining UH as an assistant professor in the chemical engineering department at the Cullen College of Engineering in 1967, Luss was promoted to professor within five years and named a Cullen Professor in 1984. As chair of the department for more than 20 years, he laid the foundation for one of the best chemical engineering programs in the nation, now led by Michael Harold, Dow Chair Professor, who completed his doctoral studies under the guidance of Luss in 1985.

"Dan's leadership and scholarship have brought considerable visibility to UH and to the department, helping us to achieve great heights," Harold said. "In his research, Dan has developed and applied sophisticated tools to help us understand chemical reactors, leading to improved reactor designs in practice. His standard of excellence has inspired me as chair of the department."

In addition to being elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1984, Luss has received several AIChE awards, including Fellow of the AIChE, the Wilhelm Award, the Professional Progress Award, the Allan P. Colburn Award and eight Best Paper Awards from the Southwest section of the AIChE.

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