Few chemical engineers have had as storied a career as Norman N. Li. For nearly 50 years, Li has been making major contributions to the chemical and petroleum industries, in particular in developing novel separations technologies. Beyond his scientific contributions, Li has been called on by the federal government for his expertise, and he has been a leader in organizing international conferences on chemical engineering.
“Norman is about as close to being a true Renaissance man as is possible for a chemical engineer,” says longtime colleague Edwin N. Lightfoot, an emeritus chemical engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “He has made major contributions in all aspects of chemical engineering, from inventor to manager and from employee to entrepreneur. He has contributed significantly to the benefits we have all received from chemical technology.”
Li started his career at Exxon in 1963, working on petroleum refining processes. One of his major contributions was the invention and development of a novel method using a specially formulated surfactant mixture that prevents wax particles from sticking together in process columns. Another key accomplishment was the development of a liquid membrane based on a concept of achieving separation by reversible chemical reactions.
He later became director of separations science and technology at UOP from 1981 to 1988. Li and his team developed and commercialized several important applications of UOP’s Sorbex continuous adsorption process. Li then served as director of research and technology at AlliedSignal (now Honeywell) from 1988 to 1995. Li and his colleagues perfected a technique that removes impurities and permits the manufacture of the fluorocarbons 134a and 141b. Those compounds replaced R-12 and HCFC-11, which were banned because of their propensity to deplete atmospheric ozone.
In 1995, Li formed his own company, NL Chemical Technology, of which he is president, to develop advanced low-energy, antifouling reverse osmosis and nanofiltration membranes for wastewater treatment and for desalination of seawater. Currently, Li and his wife, chemist and applied mathematician Jane C. Li, are helping create a new Chinese national laboratory in Beijing to conduct research on clean energy and coal processing for low-carbon-emissions products.
In addition to these technical contributions, Li has been dynamic in helping organize international separations conferences. These include Gordon Research Conferences and symposia cosponsored by ACS, such as “CO2 Summit: Technology & Opportunity,” held last year (C&EN, July 26, 2010, page 36).
Li, 78, received a B.S. degree in chemical engineering from National Taiwan University and a Ph.D. degree in chemical engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology. He is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, as well as a member of Academia Sinica in Taiwan and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. In the past, he has served on the board of directors of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, as president of the North American Membrane Society, and as chair of the ACS Division of Industrial & Engineering Chemistry. Among his awards, Li has received the ACS Award in Separations Science & Technology, the Perkin Medal from the American International Group of the Society of Chemical Industry, and AIChE’s Founders Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Field of Chemical Engineering.
Li will present the award address before the Division of Industrial & Engineering Chemistry.