History

Delft University of Technology has its roots in the Royal Academy, founded in 1843 by King William II to fulfill the demand of trade and industry for people schooled in the a~ of engineering. Previously engineering knowledge was confined to either the military or to craftsmen. The Royal Academy was set up to bring engineering into the realm of the developing industrial sector One of the first courses offered was a 3-year course in chemical engineering. At that time Holland was slowly developing a chemical industry based on new processes as the production of sal ammoniac, vitriol and ’spiritus salem’ (hydrochloric acid). In those days chemistry was, for the most part, still in the hands of apothecaries, and the first lecturer and later professor in the Department was a medical doctor by the name of Donnadieu.

As the chemical industry started to flourish in the second half of the 19th century the need for chemical engineers grew accordingly, as did their qualifications. In 1890 the 3-year course was replaced by a 4-year course and in the beginning of the 20th century, as Delft became a university, the Department was able to offer a PhD in chemical technology. Demand grew even more as the ‘traditional’ chemistry of soap and sulphuric acid faced competition from the upcoming organic chemistry. Originally mostly a craft aimed at processing agricultural products, organic chemistry soon became a technology aiming at unravelling the ’coal molecule’ for use in hundreds of product. At the end of the 19th century professor Hoogewerff laid the basis for cooperation between the Department and the chemical industry, a collaboration that has not only survived but is still flourishing.

As petroleum-based chemistry gradually replaced coal-based chemistry the range of industrial products increased. The 30s saw the dawn of the plastic age and in the 40’s foundations were laid for products as diverse as pharmaceuticals and pesticides. The evergrowing stream of products from the university and industrial laboratories increased the need for a science-based chemical technology. And for engineers who were able to design and build the complex chemical plants to make these products.

Probably the most famous Delft student Chemical Technology was Jacobus Henricus Van ‘t Hoff, born in Rotterdam, who passed through the (in that time) 3-year study in two years (1859-1861).

Van ‘t Hoff was ahead of his time; he traveled a lot, worked in Bonn and Paris, and believed in international contacts and collaboration. He was a man of imagination, which led to his proposal (1874) for the stereo structure of organic compounds, explaining the phenomenon of chirality; the existence of two mirror compounds in the case of lactic acid and other chiral compounds. This was an enormous break through in chemistry. The same holds for Van ‘t Hoff’s later work on physical chemical laws and chemical equilibria, which formed the basis of the first Nobel Prize in Chemistry, awarded to him in 1901.

Another internationally well-known Delft student, with almost the same Christian names as Van ‘t Hoff, was Hendrik Jacobus Prins, who discovered two new organic reactions, both nowadays carrying the name Prins reaction. The first one, the addition of polyhalogen compounds to olefins, was found during the doctoral research (1911-1912) of Prins, the second one, on the acid-catalyzed addition of aldehydes to olefinic compounds, became of much industrial relevance. New examples of this Prins reaction are still regularly reported.

The Department of Chemical Technology, now part of the Faculty of Applied Sciences, enjoyed the presence of several world-wide known professors. We mention – without completeness –some of them. Professor Albert Jan Kluyver succeeded the famous professor Beijerinck on the Chair of microbiology (1921 – 1956), and introduced fundamental insights in the process of the living cell. In particular he advanced the unity in the biochemistry; cells of quite different organisms use the same principles and reactions. Professor Hein Israel Water was professor in chemical technology (1919-1959) and was one of the first to apply high pressure techniques in hydrocarbon conversion. Moreover he and his coworkers developed methods to characterize hydrocarbon mixtures as obtained from crude oil.

Being Jewish Professor Waterman had hard times in the 2nd World War, but he and his family returned alive from the concentration camp Theresien Stadt. It may be noted here that two professors of the department were actively involved in the resistance during war time: P.M. Heertjes (at that time assistant professor, from 1946 on full professor unit operations) and J.W.H. Uytenbogaart (part time professor fiber technology, 1941-1964). The latter managed to report launching locations of the German V1 and V2 weapons to London.

Two professors in organic chemistry provided Delft with an excellent international reputation in this field: Jacob Böeseken (1907-1938) with pioneering work on the stereochemistry of ring systems (among which glucose) and on borate-diol reactions (nowadays used in oil exploration) and Pieter Eduard Verkade (1938-1961) who discovered a high intensity sweetener, the orange-colored compound P-4000, 4000 times as sweet as sugar.

Waterman was just 30 years old when he was appointed professor the same holds for Hans Kramers, professor in physical technology (1947-1963). Here, the Royal Dutch/Shell Company played an important role by funding the construction of two new laboratories, one for the chemical technology (“de proeffabriek”) and one for the physical technology (nowadays the Kramers Laboratory). The grant was 3 million guilders, for that time a considerable amount. Kramers introduced and developed the field of physical transport phenomena, by now a classic subject.

Metals expert Professor Willy G. Burgers (1940-1967) joined the Department following a career with Philips. He became famous for this work on the recrystallization of metals and for his studies on structural defects such as dislocations that often determine the properties of materials. He has been typified as a gentleman-scientist.

Finally we mention here Jan Hendrik de Boer, part time professor (1946-1969) in catalysis, the first chair in this interdisciplinary field in the Netherlands. With his team de Boer developed methods to characterize porous materials that are used as catalyst support. These methods are still in use. A famous de Boer book is: The Dynamical Character of Adsorption (1953). Internationally he is seen as the founder of the “Ditch School of Catalysis”.

Various buildings served as housing for the Department. At its start (1905) a building at the Westvest, opposite to the railway station was occupied. Due to shortage of space several sections soon applied for their own building. Thus a large laboratory for analytical chemistry was constructed at the De Vries van Heystplantsoen (1923), which building just was demolished. Traditionally students stayed their first two years here to become skilled in analytical work.

In 1917 a new laboratory at Julianalaan 67, together with a botanical garden, became available for the section technical botany. With consecutively new wings for biochemistry, microbiology and bio-process technology this location grew to the present Kluyver laboratory for Biotechnology. Around 1915 it had already been decided that of the main stream sections, chemical technology and chemistry, a new building should be realized. A monumental laboratory was designed, and in 1917 the building activities started at Julianalaan 134. However, for economical reasons, the work was suspended in 1923 and a casco in red brick resulted, popularly called “red chemistry”. It was used as storage center and housed, amongst others in wartime, a substantial amount of secret uranium oxide. After the war another destination was established (main university building) and a chemical laboratory with less prestige but with more efficiency was constructed as a neighboring building at Julianalaan 136, in yellow brick. Delft citizens coined of course the name “yellow chemistry”. A new building hosting all groups of the Department is scheduled for 2015.

Throughout the coming and going of students, professors and buildings, two constant factors were the high quality of the educated chemical engineers and the always vital student association “Het Technologisch Gezelschap”.

 

 

Name author: Astrid Barrow
© 2017 TU Delft

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