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Haldor Topsøe

Veteran Danish catalysis developer's focus remains rooted in fundamental science

by By Mitch Jacoby
February 27, 2006 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 84, Issue 9

Credit: Photo By Mitch Jacoby
Credit: Photo By Mitch Jacoby

Hobnobbing with world-class scientists is bound to have a lasting effect on a person. For Haldor Topsøe, chairman of the Denmark-based catalysis and technology company that bears his name, studying, working, and enjoying personal friendships with some of the greatest figures of 20th-century science led to a lifetime appreciation and commitment to uncovering new scientific knowledge.

As a student of Niels Bohr at the Nobel Laureate's institute at the University of Copenhagen in the 1930s, Topsøe was surrounded by scientists whose primary focus was atomic physics. "Of course, I followed that field closely, but my main interest was experimental solid-state physics, especially surface phenomena," Topsøe says. "I wanted to understand the basis of chemical reactions on surfaces," which is the essence of heterogeneous catalysis.

Like Topsøe, some of the other scientists and students at the Bohr Institute at that time also were interested in the chemical side of physics, he recalls. "There were people studying theoretical chemistry and some who were involved with applying the latest tools in experimental physics to chemistry," he notes. Regardless of each person's specific technical interests, according to Topsøe, the time and place was just right for forming work and social relationships with brilliant people who enjoyed discussing science and exchanging ideas.

"There were dozens of luminaries coming and going in those days at Bohr's institute," Topsøe says, "and I enjoyed getting to know many of them." In addition to developing friendly family ties with the Bohrs, Topsøe and his family befriended physics Nobel Laureates Pyotr L. Kapitsa (1978), Sir John D. Cockcroft (1951), and others.

Also at that time, Topsøe became close friends with George de Hevesy, who would later be honored with the 1943 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for pioneering isotope-labeling methods. Another chemistry great with whom Topsøe developed a friendly relationship was Johannes N. Brønsted, who, as Topsøe puts it, "was just next door" at the university's chemistry institute.

Rubbing elbows with some of the greatest thinkers of the day certainly entitles Topsøe to bragging rights, but he doesn't claim them. Rather, he's quick to dispel the notion that his relationships with so many leading scientists place him in their ranks. "They were much more clever than I was," Topsøe humbly insists. "We lived in a small corner of the world," he goes on. "And at that time, working in science in Copenhagen meant that you got to know everyone in your sphere of activity."

After graduating from university in 1936, Topsøe took a position with the Danish chemical company Aarhus Oliefabrik, where he conducted fundamental and applied investigations in support of some of the catalytic processes carried out by the company. By 1940, war was raging in Europe, and Denmark was under German occupation. At that time Topsøe and a small group of friends set up laboratories at the Technical University near Copenhagen and established a small company doing work in Denmark and Sweden. The small private firm developed know-how in industrial catalytic processes such as hydrogenation, dehydrogenation, alkylation, and preparation of sulfuric acid.

"We started out with just four or five people who were interested in science at the interface of chemistry and physics," Topsøe says. "We hoped to be able to earn a living doing fundamental catalysis work."

Eventually, the group built up a business and repertoire of services that included the manufacture and sale of catalysts, development of catalytic processes, and design and development of catalytic chemical reactors and related hardware. Today, the company employs more than 1,500 people worldwide with headquarters near Copenhagen and centers of operation in India, China, Japan, Russia, and the U.S.

At a catalysis conference in Philadelphia last summer, Topsøe, who had just turned 92 and still stood a head taller than most of the attendees, delivered impromptu remarks to a few hundred dinner guests. "Isn't it fantastic that we can hold such a meeting-with people coming from academia and industry to exchange views openly and frankly?" he observed. "It's our joint interest in catalysis and discovery that carries all of us forward.

"Some of us hope for new business opportunities in science, while others are satisfied to create new knowledge," Topsøe remarked. Proceed with caution, he warned. "If in your science you only look for business, then you risk finding neither knowledge nor business."

Catalysis practitioners around the globe say that, for decades, Topsøe has followed his own advice. "Haldor Topsøe has supreme insight and interest in the basic science of chemical transformations and an outstanding eye for using those qualities to solve important problems," says Jens K. Nørskov, a physics professor at the Technical University of Denmark, Lyngby.

Other scientists are equally enthusiastic in proclaiming their admiration of the veteran catalysis leader. University of California, Berkeley, chemical engineering professor Enrique Iglesia remarks that "among management fads and fleeting business models, Dr. Topsøe's accomplishments continue to provide clear evidence that charismatic leadership can steward knowledge and scientific rigor into a resounding and robust business success."



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