Michel Boudart, a professor emeritus of chemical engineering at Stanford University and for five decades one of the world’s leading experts in catalysis, died May 2 at an assisted living center in Palo Alto of multiple organ failure. He was 87.
Boudart played a crucial role in establishing the reputation of Stanford’s Chemical Engineering Department. The central theme of his research was the catalytic properties of metals, particularly small metal particles.
Catalysis is the study of chemical processes by which one substance, the catalyst, promotes a reaction among other substances without itself changing.
Boudart essentially brought catalysis, as a science, to chemical engineering in the United States. He was an international ambassador for the field over his entire career.
"Michel Boudart was a world renowned and influential expert in the field of catalysis who brought the Stanford University chemical engineering to prominence and trained several decades of students," said Andreas Acrivos, a fellow professor at Stanford and now professor emeritus at Stanford and City College of the City University of New York. "He left a legacy that would be difficult to replicate."
As a professor, Boudart supervised what was consistently one of the larger groups of PhD candidates in the department, eventually guiding more than 70 doctoral candidates to their degrees and mentoring over 100 postdoctoral researchers and visiting scientists. The diaspora of his former students would go on to lead and shape the field.
An avid international traveler, Boudart and his wife, Marina, boasted friends across the world. His office sported Japanese shoji screens, abstract prints, overstuffed sofas and – occupying one entire wall – an immense periodic table of the elements, printed in Russian, which he read with ease. He was described as a "gentleman scientist."
Boudart cited as his personal philosophy a quote from French literary theorist Roland Barthes that loosely translates as "No power, a little knowledge, a little wisdom, and as much flavor as possible."
In the post-World War II era, the United States became the acknowledged leader in catalysis, mostly owing to advances flowing out of American academia and industry. Boudart was at the center of it all.
In a published , Boudart once laid out his case: Without catalysis, he said, "Our satellites could not be maneuvered, our autos would pour out all the noxious chemicals we’ve spent years guarding against. Our telephone links with the rest of the world would be seriously impeded."
In 1974, in the wake of the first oil crisis, Boudart and two associates founded Catalytica in Santa Clara, Calif., which worked on highly complex catalytic problems for petrochemical, chemical and pharmaceutical firms as well as government agencies.
"[Catalytica] started in the catalysis consulting field, a service made clearly necessary by the oil crisis," Boudart said at the time. "One of the critical areas was in synthetic fuels." The company grew over the following three decades into a number of subsidiaries.
Accolades and awards were showered on Boudart throughout his life, but particularly in the later years of his career, when the scale of his impact became clear.
In 1985, the University of Utah hosted a five-day symposium on catalysis solely in Boudart’s honor. In 2004, the Journal of Physical Chemistry dedicated an entire issue to Boudart’s legacy.
In 2006, the Danish company Haldor Topsøe sponsored the Michel Boudart Award for the Advancement of Catalysis, which is administered jointly by the North American Catalysis Society and the European Federation of Catalysis Societies.
Boudart was born June 18, 1924, in Brussels, Belgium. In 1940, when Hitler’s Panzer divisions attacked his homeland, Boudart was 16. He had been accepted to the University of Louvain, but the university was closed due to the war.