Photo of John H. Sinfelt

John H. Sinfelt

  • National Medal of Science
  • Physical Sciences

For scientific research on the nature of heterogeneous catalysis leading to the development of new catalyst systems for the production of low lead gasoline.

John Sinfelt’s pioneering research helped create a cleaner-burning gasoline and reduce pollution. Sinfelt, a chemical engineer and researcher for Standard Oil Development Co., developed the process that allowed companies to produce high-octane, unleaded gasoline.

Born in Pennsylvania in 1931, Sinfelt received a doctorate in chemical engineering from the University of Illinois in 1954. That same year he began working for Standard (which later became ExxonMobil), concentrating his research in catalytic reforming.

The U.S. government in the 1970s was pushing oil companies to eliminate lead from gasoline, which was added to gasoline to enhance the performance of engines, but also contributed to both pollution and health risks. Sinfelt developed the catalytic process of using platinum and iridium, two metals, to raise the octane levels of gasoline, replacing lead.

Sinfelt, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the American Philosophical Society, patented the gasoline process. It was among the 40 patents he earned during his career.

By Bob Warren