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College remembers Dr. George W. Roberts, professor emeritus and former department head

Dr. Roberts (Photo: submitted)
Dr. Roberts (Photo: submitted)

Dr. George W. Roberts, professor emeritus of chemical and biomolecular engineering and department head emeritus of chemical and biomolecular engineering, died April 5 in Raleigh at age 71 after succumbing to a short illness. He will be remembered for his 21 years of extraordinary service to the department as an excellent teacher, researcher and administrator.

Roberts received his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Cornell University in 1961 and his Sc.D. degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1965. He began his professional career as an instructor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at MIT. After leaving MIT, he pursued a career that included positions of increasing responsibility at the Rohm and Haas Company, as a faculty member in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Washington University, Engelhard Minerals and Chemicals Corporation and Air Products and Chemicals, Inc. In 1989, he joined the Department of Chemical Engineering as professor and head of the department.

As department head, his major accomplishments included initiating the departmental alumni relations program, restructuring the departmental corporate relations programs, recruiting four new faculty members, obtaining almost $500,000 in outside faculty recruitment/development grants, obtaining corporate grants totaling over $250,000 to support graduate education and facilities improvement, and obtaining over $1.2 million in outside grants and contracts for research on alternate fuels.

His teaching and research interests included chemical reaction engineering, applied catalysis, polymerization kinetics, polymer synthesis in supercritical carbon dioxide, synthesis of oxygenated fuels, automotive catalysts, environmentally benign chemical synthesis, multiphase reactors, and the development and commercialization of new technology.

Over the last 10 years of his career, Roberts was instrumental in the establishment of the $37 million National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center for Environmentally Responsible Solvents and Processes that was launched in 1999. He led research initiatives focused on the continuous polymerization of monomers in supercritical fluids, including the design of innovative reactor configurations that enabled environmentally responsible supercritical carbon dioxide based processes for the production of commercially important materials as poly(acrylic acid) and poly(vinylidine fluoride). From 2005 until 2009, Roberts was the co-director of this very successful NSF STC.

Roberts was faculty advisor to the NC State AIChE Student Chapter for the 10-year period 1993-2003. During his tenure as faculty advisor the chapter won the national AIChE Chapter of the Year Award nine times and the Marx Isaacs Award for the best Student Chapter Newsletter. Quite appropriately, in recognition of his unprecedented success as faculty advisor, Roberts was a recipient of the national Outstanding AIChE Student Chapter Advisor Award. His other awards include the NC State Alumni Association Outstanding Teacher Award, Alcoa Foundation Distinguished Engineering Research Award, the Ralph R. Teetor Award from the Society of Automotive Engineers and the Distinguished Faculty Award from Washington University. Roberts was also a Fellow of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. He was co-inventor on 19 U.S. patents, author or co-author of more than 65 refereed technical publications, 11 book chapters, and 130 technical presentations, and his textbook, Chemical Reactions and Chemical Reactors, was published in 2008. The second printing of his text will be published shortly.

Roberts is survived by his wife, Mary Roberts of Raleigh; his daughter Claire Ruliffson of Rochester, NY, and his son William Roberts of Boston, MA. George and Mary Roberts have five grandchildren.

A memorial service to celebrate Roberts’ life and contributions is in the early planning stages. In lieu of flowers, Roberts expressed a wish that contributions in his memory be made to the NC State Engineering Foundation Endowment for George W. Roberts. Checks should be written to the Foundation and addressed to: NC State Engineering Foundation, Campus Box 7901, Raleigh, NC 27695-7901.