Emeritus Professor Wolfgang Sachtler Passes Away

Chemical engineer and chemist was a pioneer in catalysis research

Wolfgang M. H. Sachtler, emeritus professor of chemical and biological engineering and chemistry at Northwestern University, passed away on January 8, 2017. He will be remembered as an inspiring researcher and pioneer in the field of catalysis.

A member of Northwestern’s faculty since 1983, Sachtler was internationally known for his scientific and technical contributions to the field of heterogeneous catalysis, an essential technology for the production of fuels and chemicals, as well as pollution control. He was a member of the Royal Netherland Academy, the Vice President of the International Congress in Catalysis, and a member of the editorial boards of many major catalysis publications.

Wolfgang SachtlerSachtler was born in 1924 in Delitzsch, Germany and received his PhD from the University of Braunschweig in 1952. When Sachtler began his research in 1949 in the rubble of post-war Germany, the potential of catalysis was not yet appreciated. In fact, many scientists viewed it as an “obscure art.” The work of a few pioneering scientists, including Sachtler, are credited with invigorating the field and rewriting its most accepted concepts. Starting in the 1950s, Sachtler used new methodologies of ultrahigh vacuum technology to highlight the inadequacies of then-popular concepts and replaced them with more realistic models. He is perhaps best known for his research into the importance of available metal surface area dimensions on catalytic function, referred to as the “ensemble size effect.”

Sachtler’s pioneering work led him to Shell Research Laboratories in Amsterdam, where he eventually served as director of fundamental research. During his time there, Sachtler and his team introduced the oil industry to novel bimetallic catalysts, which could achieve higher selectivity and better energy efficiency. His concept of the critical “ensemble size” was also applied to areas such as selective oxidation and catalysis by sulfides. Sachtler’s invention of partially sulfided bimetallic catalysts is still used in the petroleum industry today.

After devoting more than three decades to fundamental research at Shell and the National University of Leiden, Sachtler joined Northwestern as the third Vladimir Ipatieff Professor of Chemistry, named for the world’s leading expert on catalysis in the first half of the 20th century. He also became the first director of Northwestern’s Center for Catalysis and Surface Science. At Northwestern, he focused on zeolite-based catalysts.

Toward the end of his scientific career, Sachtler shifted his focus to using catalysis to clean up the environment. He made major contributions to the discovery and understanding of catalysts that remove harmful, smog-generating pollutants from vehicle exhaust.

Sachtler was a devoted mentor to his graduate students and post-docs, often referring to them as his second family. Faculty colleagues recall his friendly, energetic personality and his readiness to provide advice to younger colleagues. He had wide-ranging interests, ranging from opera, reading, music, and languages to swimming and gardening. He is survived by his wife of more than 60 years Anne-Lore, three children, and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

A memorial service for Wolfgang Sachtler will be held Saturday, February 25 from 2:00-5:00 p.m. at Donnellan Funeral Home, located at 10045 Skokie Boulevard, Skokie, IL, 60077.  In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be directed to a charity of your choice in his name.  

Read Wolfgang Sachtler's obituary in the Chicago Tribune.