College of Chemistry, Berkeley

ChemiCAL Science and Engineering

Chemical engineering professor John Prausnitz

John Prausnitz wins National Medal of Science

Chemical engineering professor John Prausnitz is the college's newest recipient of the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest honor for science and technology. Prausnitz was honored in the field of engineering and is considered the “father of molecular thermodynamics in chemical engineering.”

“I have always, in a sense, been a communicator between chemical engineers and physical chemists,” Prausnitz said. “It has been my concern to make chemical processes, such as the separation of raw petroleum into various products, more efficient, safer and more environmentally friendly. A better understanding of thermodynamic properties for chemical engineering has helped to accomplish this.”

Born in Berlin, Germany, Prausnitz became an American citizen in 1944. He joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 1955, the year he obtained his Ph.D. from Princeton University, after earning his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Cornell University in 1950.

Prausnitz is considered one of the principal architects behind the design of modern chemical manufacturing processes, whose work dramatically changed how the thermodynamic properties of mixtures required for chemical processing are calculated. As a result of his efforts, large-scale chemical plants, such as petroleum refineries and facilities for the manufacture of polymers, plastics and pharmaceuticals are far more energy-efficient and less polluting than they used to be.

More recently, Prausnitz has applied molecular thermodynamics to the biotechnology industry. Says collaborator and fellow chemical engineering professor Harvey Blanch, “Over 15 years ago, John recognized the important role that thermodynamics could play in biotechnology. During the course of our subsequent collaboration, he translated advances in molecular thermodynamics from a chemical to a biological context, providing the fundamental underpinnings for many bioprocesses, including bioseparations, enzymatic catalysis and protein stabilization.”

In addition to his research, Prausnitz has also been a prodigious author, having written a textbook that is in its third edition, and a reference book now in its fifth edition, plus three monographs used by chemical engineers throughout the world, and a book on computer calculations of phase equilibrium that predated by some two decades the widespread use of automated, computer-based physical property predictions

The National Medal of Science honors individuals in a variety of fields for pioneering scientific research that has led to a better understanding of the world around us, as well as to the innovations and technologies that give the United States its global economic edge. The National Science Foundation administers the award, established by Congress in 1959.

--with excerpts from Lynn Yarris

Related sites:

John Prausnitz website

National Medal of Science information