Chemical

Student Harry Grynberg with local water sample, 1972
Student Harry Grynberg with local water sample, 1972 

The Department of Chemical Engineering was established in 1963 as one of the first five departments in the new Faculty of Engineering. There were high hopes held for Chemical Engineering at Monash. While Chemical Engineering was a specialty area within the University of Melbourne – the only other university to offer it in Victoria at the time although there was a Department of Chemical Engineering at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) – it had long been considered a relatively neglected branch of the engineering specialties. As a result there was a strong argument for a department dedicated to Chemical Engineering to be one of the first departments established by Monash University’s Engineering Faculty.

When the department commenced at the start of 1963 its academic staff numbered four. There were two Senior Lecturers, Charles Sinclair and Harry Lehrer; one Lecturer, Frank Lawson; and one Senior Teaching Fellow, Peter Uhlherr, who was also a PhD candidate. Sinclair and Uhlherr both came to Monash from the University of Sydney. After being appointed to the post of Senior Lecturer, Charles Sinclair, who was supervising Peter Uhlherr at the time in Sydney, offered him a PhD scholarship to follow him to Monash. ‘I could have stayed at Sydney’, recalls Uhlherr, ‘but my romantic interest was living in Melbourne at the time and it was very convenient’. Harry Lehrer was a design engineer from ICI Australia (now Orica). Like Lehrer, Frank Lawson also came to Monash from industry, having worked as a chief chemist at Mount Isa Mines Ltd.

Professor Owen Potter in laboratory
Professor Owen Potter in laboratory

These were pioneering times. It was a young, small department that was enthusiastic and committed to building a strong and dynamic Chemical Engineering profile at Monash. Interestingly, Charles Sinclair was the only member of the department with qualifications higher than a Bachelors degree at the time – though Uhlherr was in the process of completing his PhD. Both Lehrer and Lawson obtained their PhD degrees later. This team of four with its combination of industry experience and academic training laid the foundations of a strong research culture within the department – one that was well complemented by the arrival of Chemical Engineering’s Foundation Professor Owen Potter in August 1963.

Owen Potter came to Monash University from the University of Melbourne where he was a Reader in Chemical Engineering. He was also the Head of Chemical Engineering at RMIT. Potter was another young appointee to the Faculty of Engineering at Monash. He was 38 when he took up the post. By that time he had a well established research reputation. Potter was one of four final candidates for the Chair of Chemical Engineering. He was strongly supported by his referees and his decision making ability, strong leadership and dedication were listed as major strengths.

By 1964, the Department of Chemical Engineering had grown to six. The staff list read as follows:

Chemical Engineering

Professor:  Owen Edward Potter
Senior lecturer: Isaac Henry Lehrer
  Charles Gordon Sinclair
Lecturer: John Broughton Agnew
  Frank Lawson
Senior teaching fellow: Peter Uhlherr

When Owen Potter arrived at Monash, he brought PhD candidate and staff member John Agnew with him from the University of Melbourne. John Agnew was another who had had considerable industry experience as well as having a very strong academic record. As Head of the Department, Potter was tirelessly dedicated to recruiting staff who he thought would bring the most experience and expertise to the department. Both research and high quality teaching were important to Potter. While Chemical Engineering was, and still is, one of the smaller departments within the Faculty of Engineering, early staff member Frank Lawson reflects that for the first 15–20 years of the University’s life, the majority of the higher degree graduates within chemical engineering and extractive metallurgy in Australia graduated from Monash, despite there being a number of metallurgy and chemical engineering departments across the country.

Dr David Boger (left) and Associate Professor Arthur Williams with heat transfer equipment, 1978
Dr David Boger (left) and Associate Professor Arthur Williams with heat transfer equipment, 1978

The initial focus of the department was to establish strong undergraduate and laboratory programs. The department had a strong team of academics who were experts in their particular fields. This expertise, recalls Frank Lawson, gave them the freedom to develop the courses along their own lines of research and interest. He felt that ‘the Chemical Engineering Department was an experimental department and this was not the usual run of the mill’. While there was a common first year and a number of subjects taken in common across the Faculty in second year, it was in the second year that department specific subjects were introduced. Postgraduate teaching began as soon as the department was formed.

However, as Peter Uhlherr experienced, being the first and for a time only PhD candidate in a department that was still establishing itself, was not without difficulties. ‘There was no laboratory manager or HR person, there was no technician so I bought instruments … I was purchasing officer for my project, then when I was ready to get something constructed, I did it myself.’

Research was a strong priority for the young department. When David Boger joined the department from the University of Illinois in December 1965, he was persuaded by Potter to leave his area of speciality – heat transfer – and instead focus on the relatively new area of rheology. So Boger began researching in the area of rheology, non-Newtonian fluid behaviour and contributed a significant amount of knowledge to the area. This focus on undergraduate teaching, laboratory work and research was undoubtedly assisted by the department’s excellent technical to academic staff ratio of almost one to one. The department was able to reach a level of undergraduate teaching unattainable in many other universities. By 1965 the majority of the laboratories had been established and the department’s facilities were impressive. The first undergraduate experiment to take place – decomposition of bicarbonate – is a second year experiment that is still in use today. The   experiment has been upgraded and is now computerised, but the basic concept remains relevant to current students.

Boger remembers the department as having a great community atmosphere – helped along no doubt by social activities, including the occasional staff versus student drinking competition and cricket match. Tam Sridhar, the current Dean of Engineering, who joined the department as a PhD candidate when the University was less than 20 years old, also recalls a great feeling of camaraderie in these early years. It was ‘very small, very friendly’, Peter Uhlherr agrees.

Dr Peter Uhlherr with Hastings High School students
Dr Peter Uhlherr with Hastings High School students

The Department of Chemical Engineering, like the other departments in the Faculty of Engineering, had a cast of outstanding engineers, many of whom went on to achieve national and in some cases, international prominence. David Boger went on to become Chair of Chemical Engineering at the University of Melbourne, and as a result of his research at Monash had a material named after him – the Boger Fluid. He has been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. Owen Potter’s former student, John Agnew became Chair of Chemical Engineering at the University of Adelaide, and then Dean. Frank Lawson remained at Monash, obtaining his doctorate later in his career. While at Monash, he developed two international patents, became a consultant for the Brazilian Government and was twice elected outstanding teacher of the year at Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado, USA. It is noteworthy that Owen Potter, Tam Sridhar, David Boger, John Agnew and Frank Lawson all have been elected Fellows of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering. By the mid-1970s the Department of Chemical Engineering had 75 undergraduate students, and 14 academic staff members.

In the late 1970s issues of environmental protection and waste management were becoming concerns of local, national and international importance, and the Department of Chemical Engineering was not alone in addressing these matters. ‘Chemical engineers’, observed the 1979 Undergraduate Handbook, ‘are becoming increasingly involved with pollution control and the protection of the environment and with energy conservation and conversion.’ Staff with expertise in these areas had been appointed to address these issues.

Associate Professor John Agnew testing oil re-refining technique
Associate Professor John Agnew testing oil re-refining technique

In 1989 the Australian Pulp and Paper Institute (APPI), an educational and research centre supported by the Pulp and Paper Manufacturers Federation of Australia and the paper industry, was established. From APPI came the Bioresource Processing Research Institute of Australia (BioPRIA), a BioProduct innovation centre, committed to promoting sustainable development through innovations in Bioproducts and Bioresource processing.

Following this increasingly important issue of environmental protection, in the early 1990s Gary Codner from the Department of Civil Engineering established the Bachelor of Environmental Engineering, a course which is now offered in conjunction with both the Departments of Civil Engineering and Chemical Engineering.

In 2011 the Department of Chemical Engineering has an academic staff of 18, and over 70 postgraduate students. A strong emphasis on research continues within the department. The research activities fall into four broad groups: Sustainable and renewable energy, biochemical, food and pharmaceutical engineering, functional nanomaterials, and surface and colloidal processes. The application areas include clean energy, mining, water desalination, carbon capture and storage, drug formulation, tissue engineering, and fluid dynamics. 


(Updated Jun 15, 2011) Printed on: