All Into Consideration

By Marcia Faye
All Into Consideration
Hank Kohlbrand (CHE ’73)

As an internationally known expert in chemical-reaction technology and process scale-up with The Dow Chemical Company, Hank Kohlbrand (CHE ’73) has traveled the world. Among a veritable bazaar of mementos from his visits to faraway lands, on display in his office at Dow headquarters in Midland, Michigan, is a marble elephant Kohlbrand purchased in India. Within the elephant is carved a smaller elephant and within that one, an elephant that is smaller yet. What gives the piece its unique appeal, says Kohlbrand, is the artistic rendering of all three elephants together, forming a most interesting whole.

“In a country like the United States, where we sometimes take for granted much of what we have,” he says, “being able to think about other places is oftentimes a thought-provoking reminder that you shouldn’t just look at how things may have changed since yesterday, but look instead at the absolute situation and appreciate it.”

Taking a global view—both literally and philosophically—is something that Kohlbrand has been doing since his days at IIT Armour College of Engineering, when he quickly discovered that to perform well on his thermodynamics quizzes, he would need to understand and apply both prior learning and new lessons. It is a vision Kohlbrand has also adopted as incoming president of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), where he has garnered a reputation for finding answers based on his longtime involvement with the organization and his progressive attitude. Kohlbrand will begin his presidency in 2010 after serving this year as president-elect.

“Hank Kohlbrand’s experience with AIChE over the past 30-plus years, coupled with his leadership skills and forward thinking, will provide AIChE with a truly outstanding president,” says H. Scott Fogler, Vennema Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Michigan and AIChE president. “I have observed firsthand how Hank defines and thinks through the tough problems AIChE is facing and then suggests innovative solutions.”

Besides continuing the strategy begun by his predecessor, Kohlbrand will work to increase AIChE membership, keep programs timely and relevant, and ensure that activities accommodate an ever-broadening definition of chemical engineering—one that places more emphasis on biotechnology, sustainability, and process safety, for example. He says that today’s chemical engineers also need to recognize the great impact they can have on addressing some of the world’s major social issues.

“Solutions to the problem of having potable water, for example, will reside in many cases with the chemical engineer taking scientific principles and putting them into action, analyzing processes and equipment,” says Kohlbrand, Dow’s global research and development (R&D) director of engineering and process sciences in core R&D. “There’s a societal aspect whereby if you could take away the burden of having potable water, it will allow people to spend their time on other things that will improve their lives.”

Through its Institute for Sustainability, AIChE is involved in projects to convert solar, wind, and ocean wave energy into forms that are accessible and affordable. Youth outreach and teacher mentoring is another focus area of the institute, as AIChE looks for ways to encourage K-12 students to consider careers in engineering, science, and mathematics as well as provide them with an outlet to address their sense of social consciousness and satisfy their yearnings to make a difference in the health of the planet. AIChE members and student chapters have joined with the group Engineers Without Borders on various projects, which gives chemical engineering students the opportunity to work together as a team with students in other engineering disciplines to help solve critical problems affecting developing global communities.

“Being able to think about other places is oftentimes a thought-provoking reminder that you shouldn’t just look at how things may have changed since yesterday, but look instead at the absolute situation and appreciate it.”

Kohlbrand recalls his own experience as part of a Dow engineering team whose effective internal collaboration produced an innovation of far-reaching benefit. In 1974—the year that Kohlbrand became a Dow employee—he and some 20 colleagues began searching for ways to more safely work with materials that were stored in large quantities at Dow, a multibillion-dollar diversified science and technology corporation. The team’s four-year effort resulted in the accelerating rate calorimeter (ARC™), designed to simulate runaway chemical reactions in large containers such as railcars, storage tanks, or even chemical reactors. The calorimeter went through a series of patents, was commercialized in 1978, and won several industry honors, including the John C. Vaaler Award, the A. O. Beckman Award, and two R&D 100 Awards, which qualifies a product as being one of the most innovative ideas of the year.

Kohlbrand led the sub-team that converted data from the ARC to predict real-world scenarios as well as the efforts to license the invention to a company that heard about the calorimeter and wanted to develop a commercial version.

“Many people who use scientific instruments only see the final product,” says Kohlbrand, who is chair of the IIT Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering Advisory Board. “They don’t realize that when something is new, it doesn’t look elegant—it doesn’t have nice paint or flashy dials. The calorimeter was really kind of an ugly thing when we first started. It was actually designed to blow up; that’s one of the reasons you get such good data,” he adds with a chuckle, noting that the tiny ARC only held about 10 grams, or 10 cc, of sample but was contained within a mini-refrigerator-sized safety containment. “The process of watching the calorimeter evolve—from a concept to a device that worked to a commercial entity that turned out to be very successful—was quite an eye-opening experience.”

With the ARC still in use at many companies, Kohlbrand is now largely responsible for determining which projects Dow is capable of undertaking in the areas of process chemistry, process development, reaction engineering, modeling, fluid mechanics and mixing, process separations, and solids processing. He also plays a significant role in managing interactions between R&D and manufacturing, focusing on the development of new products and process technology.

High-priority projects Kohlbrand’s division is developing include alternative feed stocks, such as the use of plant oils as chemical feed stocks; green chemistry procedures; process synthesis, intensification, and reliability analyses; integrated photovoltaic cells; coal-to-chemicals conversion; water purification methods; and a number of new product proprietary projects for Dow’s many clients.

“The scope of what we can do today has increased tremendously,” says Kohlbrand, about the changes he has seen in business and technology over the course of his career. “Our ability to use computer modeling to enhance our experimental programs has allowed us to fundamentally change the way that we develop technology and understand science. We can use computers to explore many different design options for a plant instead of putting together one design and tediously going through calculations by hand. On the business side, when I started in the industry, companies were led and organized geographically and functionally. There is a lot more customer focus now, with commercial leadership. We are much more directed by the markets that we serve than by the products that we make.”

While Kohlbrand recalls that there was a high school chemistry teacher and a grade school science teacher whom he admired, he most respects leaders who have made an impact on the world, from Joseph Smith, the Mormon Church founder who created a series of influential governing principles, to Benjamin Franklin, who made contributions to printing, science, and government.

“Patton was not a particularly nice guy, but he sure showed the tenacity and the ability during the war to really make a difference,” says Kohlbrand. “He was wired for conflict.”

In 2002, Kohlbrand was recognized for his lifetime of career accomplishment with IIT’s Professional Achievement Award and in 2009, the Charles W. Pierce Distinguished Alumni Award. In 1997, Kohlbrand added an especially unique credit to his name: he was selected as the Ralph Peck Distinguished Lecturer, in a longtime tradition that honors the former Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering chair and thermodynamics professor whose 10-minute quizzes taught Kohlbrand not only a tough science, but how to incorporate all of the component parts into a most interesting and valuable whole.

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