University of Rochester

Feinberg Wins Aiche's Prestigious Richard H. Wilhelm Award

September 19, 1996

Martin Feinberg, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Rochester, has been named the recipient of the 1996 Richard H. Wilhelm Award of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. Feinberg will accept the award for his career of pioneering work in chemical reaction network theory at AIChE's annual meeting in Chicago this November.

The Wilhelm Award, named for one of the founders of Princeton's chemical engineering department, is a prestigious international research award presented annually by the 57,000- member organization.

Feinberg is widely regarded by the chemical engineering community as a founder of the discipline known as chemical reaction network theory, a field that attempts to uncover patterns in complex systems of intertwined chemical reactions.

"Quite simply, he really developed chemical reaction network theory almost single-handedly," says Rutherford Aris, professor emeritus in the University of Minnesota's world-renowned chemical engineering department. "The structure of the discipline is all Feinberg's doing."

Feinberg's work with chemical reaction network theory bridges the gap between chemistry and mathematics. He studies fundamental properties of non-linear differential equations that can be used to track the concentrations of reactants in chemical systems that have dozens of individual chemical components -- something that even few mathematicians are able to do. Although trained as a chemical engineer, Feinberg has gained the respect of the mathematics community: He was selected by the Society of Industrial and Applied Mathematics as a plenary speaker at the group's 1995 conference on dynamical systems.

"In my work, I try to understand why intricate chemical systems usually remain so stable in spite of their complexity -- and why that stability sometimes falls apart," Feinberg says. "My students and I have discovered some beautiful fundamental patterns that are intrinsic to large classes of complicated chemical systems."

Although Feinberg works at a purely theoretical level, there are several useful applications of chemical reaction network theory. It offers a deeper understanding of chemical mixtures such as petroleum, which is a conglomeration of about 10,000 different compounds. Chemical reaction network theory also offers insights into chemical cycles in the cells of organisms and into the operation of catalysts.

Chemical reaction network theory arose in the late 1960s, when chemists and chemical engineers realized that complex chemical mixtures can lead to unstable and even chaotic dynamics. The earliest researchers in the field could devise only simple and often unrealistic models to analyze such chemical systems.

When Feinberg joined the Rochester faculty in 1967, he abandoned the research he conducted as a Ph.D. student at Princeton -- on the fluid mechanics of polymers -- in favor of work with F.J.M. Horn and Roy Jackson on chemical reaction network theory. Still one of only a few researchers in the field, Feinberg is now an internationally recognized figure, Aris says.

Feinberg has taught a freshman engineering seminar in decision-making and undergraduate courses in fluid mechanics, earning the University's Edward Peck Curtis Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 1994. He also has taught graduate courses in chemical reactor design and applied mathematics for chemical engineers.

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