Richard Maling Barrer, FRS


Richard Maling Barrer , the Founding Father of Zeolite Chemistry and a prominent figure in Membrane Science, died peacefully at his home in Chislehurst, Kent on Thursday, 12th September 1996 after a six year battle with cancer. The International Zeolite community has lost its most important member.

Richard Barrer was born on his parents' sheep farm in New Zealand on 16th June 1910. His first degree was from Canterbury College, now Canterbury University, in Christchurch, the main city of the S. Island. This College was interestingly the first University of Ernest Rutherford who became Baron Rutherford of Nelson, the father of modern nuclear science. In 1932 Barrer was awarded the one 1851 Exhibition Scholarship awarded annually to a student from NZ. He joined the famous Sir Eric Rideal's Colloid Science Laboratory in Cambridge University. This laboratory was a most stimulating place for a young research student to join. Sir Eric Rideal encouraged his colleagues to produce their own ideas and as a result of reading McBain's "Sorption of Gases by Solids" Richard Barrer became highly excited about the sorption of gases in zeolites, especially chabazite, crystals with strictly regular pore and channel structures of molecular dimensions which were exactly defined by their lattice parameters. And so was born one of the most significant new fields of research in the 20th century.

Outside the laboratory Barrer showed great prowess at athletics and tennis. He won the Oxford-Cambridge cross-country race in 1934 and the British Universities Athletic Union cross-country championship for 1935. He was awarded a full blue for Athletics for these achievements and was a serious contender for selection for the 10,000 metres race in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. His tennis was still good enough, as late as 1990, to withstand all challenges in partnership with Bob Van Norstrand, who was six years younger than Barrer, at the triennial British Zeolite Association meetings in Farringtons School, Chislehurst.

He gained his Ph.D. degree in Cambridge in 1935; D.Sc.(New Zealand) in 1937: Sc.D.(Cambridge) in 1948. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1956 and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1965. From 1937-39 he was a Research Fellow, Clare College, Cambridge; 1939-46 Head of Chemistry at Bradford Technical College; 1946-48 Reader in Chemistry, Bedford College, University of London; 1948-54 Chair of Chemistry and Head of Department, University of Aberdeen; 1954-76 Professor of Physical Chemistry and Head of the Chemistry Department, Imperial College, London. During his headship of the Department at Imperial he had Sir Derek Barton and the late Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson as Professors of Organic and Inorganic Chemistry respectively, both Nobel Laureates; surely he chaired one of the most powerful Chemistry departments in the world.

Professor Barrer's interests in zeolites developed during the late 30's and early 40's. His initial studies confirmed the molecular sieving properties of these crystalline, microporous solids and the results were reported in a paper entitled "Sorption of Polar and non-Polar Gases by Zeolites" which was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society in 1938. Over the next 15 years, although handicapped by the difficulties of carrying out research during the Second World War, he published a further 35 papers characterizing these microporous frameworks as adsorbents and catalysts. He clearly demonstrated for the first time how these minerals could be synthesised in the laboratory; could be modified by ion-exchange and could be converted into extremely strong, environmentally friendly, solid acid catalysts with shape-selective properties. Barrer was the first to appreciate the usefullness of these materials in many applications. These studies , undoubtedly, led to the development of these materials as cheap, perfectly defined, highly reproducible molecular sieve adsorbents and shape-selective catalysts by Union Carbide and the Mobil Corporation, USA in the late 50's and early 60's. These developments completely altered the economy of the developed world by the very greatly improved efficiencies in the conversion of crude oil to high octane fuels and feed stocks for the chemical industry. It is impossible to quantify exactly the huge savings which resulted from these developments.

His researches have also led to the development of large industrial processes for the separation of hydrocarbons, oxygen/nitrogen and other gas and liquid mixtures. From studies on the ion-exchange thermodynamics of sodium and calcium ions in zeolite A, which were reported in the Proceedings of the Royal Society in 1963, some one million tons per annum of this zeolite are now used as builders in detergents across the world. Zeolite A was introduced as the environmentally friendly replacement for phosphates in detergents in the 70's.

He was the first to demonstrate that alkylammonium compounds could be used as "templates" in the synthesis of zeolites. This discovery expanded zeolite synthesis horizons immensely and resulted in a new, major synthesis tool well beyond the field of zeolites. A whole plethora of new materials have been developed over the past ten years from these studies and his theoretical studies of the stabilization of lattices by sorbed and occluded molecules. One of these materials, the zeolite ZSM-5, is used as the catalyst in a plant built in New Zealand for the conversion of natural gas to petroleum. This plant now provides some 30% of the fuel needs of the country dear to the heart of Barrer. His demonstration of zeolite dealumination, or "chemical resynthesis", created a major sub-division of zeolite research that continues to be a source of many commercial catalysts and hydrophobic sorbents.

Richard Barrer was an excellent teacher, with an intense and infectious interest in the scientific problem at hand. He enjoyed turning his back on all his administration problems and immersing himself in discussions during his daily visits to every member of his large research school. He was regularly consulted by many large industrial corporations right up to his death. As editor of the Zeolite Journal I used him frequently as a referee. He carried out these duties with enthusiasm and continued to demonstrate a highly critical mind only weeks before his death. He was still publishing papers of considerable mathematical complexity in 1996.

Richard Maling Barrer was a most distinguished scientist. It was a pleasure and inspiration to have known him for many years. Although a shy person he had complete confidence in his own abilities. During the course of his life he published well over 400 papers, 3 monographs and took out 21 patents. Many eminent scientists considered that his pioneering studies should have been more fully recognised. He was nominated by a large number of distinguished scientists for the Nobel Prize in 1996. As this prize is not presented posthumously we shall never know how close he came to achieving the award he coveted.

Our sympathies are extended to Helen, his wife of 57 very happy years, and to his devoted family of Peter, Alison, Hillary and Christine.

Lovat V.C. Rees

last updated: 8-February-2001