Ipatieff, Vladimir Nikolaevitch (1967–1952)

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Vladimir Nikolaevitch Ipatieff, one of the founding fathers of high-pressure catalysis, was the innovating force behind some of this country's most important petroleum processing technologies in the years leading up to World War II.


Ipatieff was born in Russia in 1867. As a member of the privileged (i.e., noble) class, Ipatieff prepared for a military career. Early on in his education, Ipatieff gravitated toward the sciences, and in particular chemistry.

Ipatieff's formal training in chemistry began in earnest when, at the age of twenty-two, he entered the Mikhail Artillery Academy in St. Petersburg. The Academy was founded to give technical training to officers who were to serve as engineers and in other positions within the Russian military.

Chemical training at the Academy was particularly strong. The school taught Ipatieff how to apply textbook concepts to actual plant conditions. As a student, and then later as an instructor at the Academy, he regularly visited local metallurgical and chemical plants to examine first-hand industrial production.

While still a student at the Academy, Ipatieff began to make a name for himself in the Russian chemical community as he began to publish some of his laboratory findings. His first professional milestone as a chemist came in 1890 when he joined Russia's Physical-Chemical Society. Here he came into close contact with Russia's most famous chemists, including Dimitri Mendeleev, discoverer of the periodic table and one of the founders of the Society. In 1891, upon graduating from the school, he was appointed lecturer in chemistry at the Academy where he also continued to undertake original chemical research for his doctoral dissertation. In 1895, he was made assistant professor and, upon completion and acceptance of his dissertation in 1899, he became a full professor of chemistry.

Right up to World War I, Ipatieff, as part of his responsibilities at the Academy, traveled extensively to conferences and seminars throughout Europe and the United States. As a result, he made the acquaintance of some of the major chemists of the day.

During these years he gained an international reputation in the area of experimental chemistry in general and high pressure catalysis in particular. At the Academy he designed, built, and directed one of the first permanent high-pressure laboratories in Europe. Ipatieff investigated the composition and synthesis of numerous aliphatic compounds, including isoprene and the complex alcohols. He demonstrated for the first time the catalytic effect of the metal reactor walls on reactions, a result which would have important commercial implications. Ipatieff also undertook the first sophisticated experiments in catalytic polymerization, isomerization, and dehydrogenation of organic materials, including alcohols and petroleum.

He became intimately familiar with a wide range of catalytic materials—including aluminum oxide, silica, and clay, as well as nickel, platinum, zinc, and copper—and their role individually and as mixtures in effecting chemical transformation. One of Ipatieff's most important lines of research was his breakthrough work on the nature and mechanisms of catalytic promoters on organic reactions.

Although Ipatieff was dedicated to research, his practical training at the Academy prepared him well for applying his research to commercial problems. Ipatieff consulted to industry and government on a regular basis. He was often called upon to make commercial grade catalysts for a variety of applications. One of his most important early assignments, obtaining gasoline from Caspian sea petroleum, introduced Ipatieff to industrial research in fuels. He also used his expertise to undertake research for the government and helped expand Russia's explosives capacity during World War I.


Ipatieff's life changed dramatically with the Russian Revolution in 1917. The Bolsheviks were hesitant to retain in official positions those who were too closely allied with the old regime.

Ipatieff, however, remained loyal to Russia, even in its new form. He was also a pragmatist who understood that he must find a way to accommodate the new way of life in Russia, and gain the confidence of those currently holding power if he was to continue his chemical research.

Over the next few years, Ipatieff called upon the wide contacts he had made within Russian scientific and administrative circles before the revolution, and his growing international reputation, to negotiate with the Bolsheviks a favorable place for his research activity. An important element in his success was his ability to convince the government of the strategic importance of his work, which (he pointed out) had just been demonstrated during the war. Under Lenin, who knew of Ipatieff and his work, the scientist received government support. He remained at the Academy, which was retained to train future Bolshevik military officers. Most importantly, Ipatieff was given an official and prestigious research position as Director of the newly created Institute for High Pressures.

In this favorable environment, Ipatieff undertook some of his most important work in high pressure reactions. He studied the effect of catalysts and high pressures on reactions taking place in hydrogen atmospheres, and the effect of such metals as platinum and nickel on forming cyclic compounds from olefin-based materials. This was to become very important later in the 1930s and 1940s in the United States with the development of the platforming process.

When Stalin came to power, the political climate in Russia turned against the creative individuals—scientists, musicians, and writers—especially those who had strong roots in Czarist Russia. During the 1920s Ipatieff saw his colleagues and coworkers arrested, sent to labor camps, or executed.


The opportunity for Ipatieff to emigrate to the United States came through a job offer by Dr. Gustav Egloff, Director of Research at the Universal Oil Products Co. (UOP). UOP, a Chicago-based firm, was a petroleum process development firm known in particular for its commercialization of the first continuous thermal cracking technology (i.e., the Dubbs Process). In the late 1920s, UOP wanted to go into catalytic cracking research. Having met Ipatieff in Germany while attending an international chemical conference, Egloff, who was familiar with Ipatieff's reputation, suggested that Ipatieff think of relocating to Chicago to direct UOP in these efforts.

Reluctantly, in 1929 Ipatieff left his homeland for the United States. He remained at UOP for the remainder of his life. Northwestern University, which had close ties to UOP, appointed Ipatieff to a professorship and directorship of the university's high-pressure research laboratory.

At UOP, Ipatieff had the opportunity to apply his former research in catalytic promoters and high-pressure technique to develop important catalytic petroleum processing technologies. In contrast to the way he conducted science, Ipatieff's technical efforts were conducted in teams comprised of a wide assortment of specialists.

Through the 1930s, Ipatieff led UOP in its effort to develop two catalytic processes for the production of high-octane fuel: alkylation and polymerization—the first, a reaction of a hydrocarbon with an olefin (double-bonded compound); the second, the formation of long molecules from smaller ones. Both processes produce high-octane blending compounds that increase the quality of cracked gasoline.

Ipatieff's work on promoted phosphoric acid and hydrogen fluoride catalysts, which extended his earlier research in Russia, provided the key to commercializing alkylation and polymerization technologies. Shell and other refiners quickly established industrial scale operations. These technologies, generally operating together and in tandem with cracking operations, created vast amounts of high quality aviation fuel. They were a vital part of the Allied war effort during World War II.

Ipatieff's final contribution to catalytic technology was more indirect but essential. His guidance and suggestions to Vladimir Haensel, a fellow Russian émigré who worked on catalytic reforming at UOP and studied under Ipatieff at Northwestern, were a significant contribution to Haensel's development of the high-pressure reforming technology known as platforming. An extension of Ipatieff's previous work involving platinum catalysts, high pressure, and hydrogen environments, platforming represents the first continuous catalytic reforming process. It produces large tonnages of ultra-high octane gasoline materials and critical organic intermediates (benzene, toluene, and xylene), previous obtained only in limited quantities from coal tar. Platforming, along with fluid catalytic cracking, is generally considered one of the great petrochemical innovations of the century.

Ipatieff never received the honor he coveted the most, the Nobel Prize. However, he continued to publish voluminously and, ever the practical scientist, he obtained numerous patents. He continued to receive honors in the United States and internationally. He became a member of the National Academy of Sciences and received the prestigious Gibbs medal for his many achievements. Ipatieff lived long enough to see the petroleum industry transformed with process technologies that he created and that were rooted in his early scientific research. The first platforming plant, the culmination of his life's work in catalytic research, came on line just shortly before his death in 1952.

Sanford L. Moskowitz

See also:Catalysts; Refining, History of.


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Ipatieff, Vladimir Nikolaevitch (1967–1952)

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