Remembering John C. Chen, 2006 AIChE President

January 8, 2014

John C. Chen, the Carl R. Anderson Professor Emeritus of Chemical Engineering at Lehigh Univ. (Bethlehem, PA), and AIChE’s president in 2006, died suddenly on Dec. 30, 2013.

Chen was an internationally known scholar in transport phenomena in multiphase systems and a pioneer in heat transfer theory and practice. His 1966 paper entitled Correlation for Boiling Heat Transfer to Saturated Fluids in Convective Flow developed the “Chen Method” of predicting the rate at which heat must be transferred to liquid to make it boil. The method became the standard for designing vapor-liquid boiling systems used in the chemical, power, refrigeration, petroleum, nuclear, and gas industries. Since that early discovery, Chen continued to make seminal contributions to various facets of heat transfer science and technology across his career.

Chen’s contributions to AIChE were also varied and wide-reaching, spanning more than three decades and impacting many areas of Institute life. Otis Shelton, AIChE’s 2014 president, served as AIChE Secretary during Chen’s presidency, and remembers his colleague as an inspirational AIChE leader. “John’s insightful and logical analysis, along with his strong leadership and tenacity, led to the solution of several critical issues that faced the Institute,” says Shelton. Projects launched during under Chen’s presidency included AIChE’s Energy Initiative and the International Committee.

Chen began his chemical engineering career at Cooper Union and Carnegie Mellon Univ., where he earned BS and MS degrees, respectively. After completing his PhD in chemical engineering at the Univ. of Michigan in 1961, Chen worked as a researcher at Brookhaven National Laboratory for a decade before joining the Lehigh Univ. faculty in 1970.

At Lehigh, Chen’s research interests and expertise enabled him to be a professor of both mechanical and chemical engineering, and he taught undergraduates and graduates in both disciplines. He also chaired Lehigh’s chemical engineering department (1983–1989) and served as dean of Lehigh’s P. C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science (1999–2001).

A Fellow of AIChE, Chen held many leadership roles in the Institute. He chaired the Heat Transfer and Energy Conversion Div. in 1983, and in the early 1990s he was a founding member and leader of the Particle Technology Forum. He served a term as an AIChE director (1994–1997), and was elected Institute Secretary for 2001–2003. The next year, he was elected President-elect, and served as President in 2006.

Chen published more than 200 technical articles and received numerous national and international research awards. Among his honors are the Melville Medal for archival literature and the Classic Paper Award from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME); the Alexander von Humboldt Senior Research Award; the Max Planck Research Prize from the Federal Republic of Germany; and the Max Jakob Memorial Award, jointly administered by AIChE and ASME. In 2012, he was the inaugural recipient of the World Scientific Award in Boiling and Condensing Heat Transfer, in recognition of his contributions to the fundamental understanding of boiling and condensing phenomena and his ability to translate that understanding into better engineering practice.

His honors from AIChE include the D. Q. Kern Award, the Heat Transfer and Energy Conversion Division Award, and the Particle Technology Forum’s Thomas Baron Award in Fluid-Particle Systems.  

As recently as Nov. 2013, Chen served as a plenary speaker at AIChE’s Annual Meeting in San Francisco, CA, where he also took part in a video interview regarding career choices for young chemical engineers.

In addition to his close affiliation with AIChE, Chen was a Fellow of ASME and a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He also served on the governing boards of the Council for Chemical Research, Engineering Conferences International, and the Chemical Heritage Foundation. 

In 2012, after his retirement from Lehigh Univ., the chemical engineering department established the John C. Chen Prize for Professional Leadership, which is awarded annually to a high-ranking chemical engineering junior or senior who demonstrates commendable professional leadership in chemical engineering. The prize consists of a multi-year membership in AIChE upon the student’s graduation. 

Chen is survived by his wife, Kathy; two sons, Chris and Peter; a daughter, Lisa; and eight grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at 10 am on Feb. 8, 2014, at the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, 2344 Center St., Bethlehem, PA.

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