Michel Boudart, a professor emeritus of chemical engineering at Stanford University and for five decades one of the world’s leading experts in catalysis, died May 2 at an assisted living center in Palo Alto of multiple organ failure. He was 87.

Michel Boudart portrait

During his career, Michel Boudart guided more than 70 doctoral candidates to their degrees and mentored more than 100 postdoctoral researchers and visiting scientists. (Image credit: Courtesy Stanford Engineering)

Boudart played a crucial role in establishing the reputation of Stanford’s Chemical Engineering Department. The central theme of his research was the catalytic properties of metals, particularly small metal particles.

Catalysis is the study of chemical processes by which one substance, the catalyst, promotes a reaction among other substances without itself changing.

Boudart essentially brought catalysis, as a science, to chemical engineering in the United States. He was an international ambassador for the field over his entire career.

“Michel Boudart was a world renowned and influential expert in the field of catalysis who brought the Stanford University chemical engineering to prominence and trained several decades of students,” said Andreas Acrivos, a fellow professor at Stanford and now professor emeritus at Stanford and City College of the City University of New York. “He left a legacy that would be difficult to replicate.”

As a professor, Boudart supervised what was consistently one of the larger groups of PhD candidates in the department, eventually guiding more than 70 doctoral candidates to their degrees and mentoring over 100 postdoctoral researchers and visiting scientists. The diaspora of his former students would go on to lead and shape the field.

World traveler

An avid international traveler, Boudart and his wife, Marina, boasted friends across the world. His office sported Japanese shoji screens, abstract prints, overstuffed sofas and – occupying one entire wall – an immense periodic table of the elements, printed in Russian, which he read with ease. He was described as a “gentleman scientist.”

Boudart cited as his personal philosophy a quote from French literary theorist Roland Barthes that loosely translates as “No power, a little knowledge, a little wisdom, and as much flavor as possible.”

In the post-World War II era, the United States became the acknowledged leader in catalysis, mostly owing to advances flowing out of American academia and industry. Boudart was at the center of it all.

In a published interview, Boudart once laid out his case: Without catalysis, he said, “Our satellites could not be maneuvered, our autos would pour out all the noxious chemicals we’ve spent years guarding against. Our telephone links with the rest of the world would be seriously impeded.”

In 1974, in the wake of the first oil crisis, Boudart and two associates founded Catalytica in Santa Clara, Calif., which worked on highly complex catalytic problems for petrochemical, chemical and pharmaceutical firms as well as government agencies.

“[Catalytica] started in the catalysis consulting field, a service made clearly necessary by the oil crisis,” Boudart said at the time. “One of the critical areas was in synthetic fuels.” The company grew over the following three decades into a number of subsidiaries.

Guiding force

Accolades and awards were showered on Boudart throughout his life, but particularly in the later years of his career, when the scale of his impact became clear.

In 1985, the University of Utah hosted a five-day symposium on catalysis solely in Boudart’s honor. In 2005, the Journal of Physical Chemistry dedicated an entire issue to Boudart’s legacy.

In 2006, the Danish company Haldor Topsøe sponsored the Michel Boudart Award for the Advancement of Catalysis, which is administered jointly by the North American Catalysis Society and the European Federation of Catalysis Societies.

Boudart was born June 18, 1924, in Brussels, Belgium. In 1940, when Hitler’s Panzer divisions attacked his homeland, Boudart was 16. He had been accepted to the University of Louvain, but the university was closed due to the war.

In order not to be drafted or sent to German factories, Boudart worked as a volunteer stretcher-bearer for the Red Cross. Meanwhile, he had private tutoring to prepare for Louvain. When the university reopened, he graduated in three years at the top of every class, save mathematics, where he was outdone only by his dear friend, the late Professor Rene de Vogelaere of the University of California-Berkeley.

Boudart earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Louvain in 1944 and his master of science in 1947. He then left Belgium to attend Princeton University, where he took his PhD in chemistry in 1950.

After earning his doctorate, Boudart held faculty positions at Princeton until 1961 and, for three years, at Berkeley, before joining the Stanford faculty in 1964. He was chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering at Stanford from 1975 to 1978. He also held visiting professorships at universities in Louvain, Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo and Paris. He became professor emeritus in 1994.

Prolific author

Boudart authored or coauthored over 280 journal articles and served on the editorial boards of at least 10 journals. His book Kinetics of Chemical Processes is a standard reference and was translated into Japanese, Spanish and French. His book Kinetics of Heterogeneous Catalytic Processes, written with G. Djega-Mariadassou, was published in French in 1982 and translated to English in 1984. He was coeditor-in-chief of Catalysis Science and Technology, a series of 11 volumes.

Boudart was recipient of numerous awards. His election to both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering were reflections of his leadership and his scientific gravitas. He was likewise a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the California Academy of Sciences. He was a foreign member of the Academie Royale des Sciences, des Lettres et des Beaux-Arts de Belgique and its Royal Belgian Academy Council for Applied Sciences.

Boudart received honorary doctorates from the University of Liege, the University of Notre Dame, the University of Ghent and the Institut National Polytechnique de Lorraine. He held four patents.

Boudart is survived by a daughter, Iris Harris, of Whittier; three sons, Marc of Aptos, Baudouin of Atherton and Philip of Palo Alto; and grandchildren Marina and Clint Harris and Jesse, Louise and Noella Boudart. His wife, Marina d’Haese Boudart, died in 2009. A second daughter, Dominique, died in childhood.

A High Mass is planned for May 23 at 1 p.m. at Church of the Nativity, 210 Oak Grove Ave., Menlo Park. Reception and eulogies to follow at 3 p.m. at the Stanford Faculty Club.

Donations in lieu of flowers may be sent to:

Catholic Charities, Archbishop of San Francisco, 180 Howard St., No. 100, San Francisco, CA 94105
Stanford University: Attn: Pam Juanes, Department of Chemical Engineering, 381 North-South Mall, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305
Church of the Nativity, 210 Oak Grove Ave., Menlo Park, CA 94025
Woodside Priory School, 302 Portola Road, Portola Valley, CA 94028

Andrew Myers is associate director of communications for the Stanford University School of Engineering.