Issue Date: January 9, 2012
Earle B. Barnes Award for Leadership in Chemical Research Management
Sponsored by the Dow Chemical Co. Foundation
During his 30-year career, Ben A. Christolini has played a role much like that of the key technology that his work advanced. His leadership has been a catalyst for the commercialization of 50 new products and technologies in refining and petrochemicals.
As an undergraduate studying chemical engineering at the University of Connecticut, Christolini worked with catalysts at the test-tube scale. When he arrived at his first job at Unocal in 1980, he gained a new appreciation for their power. “My first industry experience was working in hydrocracking. I saw the huge impact of what can seem like a small change at the lab scale, to what it means for the financial and performance benefit of a company,” he recalls. “It really got me excited.”
His curiosity and excitement about catalysts took root in a supportive working environment, Christolini, 53, remembers. “All the scientists and engineers were colocated, and we ate at the same lunch table every day. It was a very collaborative culture.” That culture helped him gain expertise quickly, Christolini says. “I learned from some of the best catalyst scientists in the world, all of whom were willing to share their time and expertise.”
In 1987, Christolini was made manager of new technology development at Unocal. He led the development of shale oil production and upgrading, producing more than 3 million barrels of synthetic crude over three years. He branched out to lead technology development for geothermal power and environmental remediation.
In 1991, Christolini was named general manager of process research and development. His group’s innovations related to refining and petrochemical products and processes. He also worked with outside partners such as Union Carbide to make advances in zeolitic hydrocracking technology that dramatically increased the output of distillate and gasoline from a barrel of oil.
Unocal was not the only firm to recognize Christolini’s leadership skills. In 1995, when Honeywell’s UOP acquired Unocal, he was named manager of UOP’s hydroprocessing and reforming technology centers. His group’s products and processes for hydrocracking, hydrotreating, and reforming generated more than $100 million in revenue over three years.
As UOP reorganized and centralized its research and development over the years, Christolini was consistently chosen for leadership roles. His team developed the ADS-37 Parex adsorbent, which allowed petrochemical producers to greatly expand their p-xylene capacity.
In 2002, Christolini went back to school to earn an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago. He then revitalized UOP’s petrochemical and refining portfolio. Edward T. Wolynic, former chief technology officer (CTO) for Honeywell Specialty Materials, says that “hallmarks of Ben’s leadership style during this period were working collaboratively with customers to identify needs, translating those into clear technical goals, and developing strong team leaders.”
Christolini has led centralized research and development at UOP since 2006 and is now the firm’s CTO. His department of 600 researchers has filed more than 430 patent applications in the past two years. In addition to innovations for petroleum refining, the group has introduced new technologies such as Ecofining, which converts nonedible oils into distillate fuels.
Christolini will present the award address before the ACS Division of Industrial & Engineering Chemistry.
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