03/20/2012 07:00:00

Caltech Chemical Engineer John Seinfeld Wins 2012 Tyler Prize

Atmospheric researcher John H. Seinfeld, the Louis E. Nohl Professor and professor of chemical engineering at Caltech, has been named one of two winners of this year's Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, an honor regarded as the top prize of environmental science, environmental health, and energy.

Seinfeld was cited by the Tyler Prize executive committee for "his groundbreaking work leading to the understanding of the origin, chemistry, and evolution of particles in the atmosphere."

In winning the Tyler Prize, Seinfeld joins a distinguished list of Tyler laureates, including air quality research pioneer Arie Haagen-Smit, who discovered the source of photochemical smog while working at Caltech. Haagen-Smit was one of three people to be honored with the inaugural Tyler Prize in 1974. Another Caltech researcher, Clair Patterson, whose investigations of the distribution of lead were largely responsible for policy changes that drastically reduced lead exposures, received the prize in 1995.

"When I began doing research on the atmosphere, I read Haagen-Smit's early papers and got to know him," Seinfeld says. "I never would have imagined at that time that the work I would do would someday lead to my recognition with the same prize that both Haagen-Smit and Patterson received for their work."

Born in Elmira, New York, Seinfeld did his undergraduate work in chemical engineering at the University of Rochester and earned his PhD at Princeton University. He joined the faculty at Caltech in 1967, becoming a full professor in 1974 and the Nohl Professor in 1979. He served as Executive Officer for Chemical Engineering from 1974 until 1990 and was chair of the Division of Engineering and Applied Science from 1990 until 2000.

Early in his research, Seinfeld realized that in order to make progress in terms of controlling smog, a comprehensive model of the atmosphere was needed. In the early 1970s, he created such a mathematical model of the Los Angeles atmosphere—the first model ever created of an urban atmosphere. Today, the Clean Air Act requires states to use such models to guide their planning for air-pollution control.

Over the course of his career, he has contributed greatly to our understanding of the tiny but important particles in the air, known as aerosols, which have human health effects and play a role in Earth's climate. Seinfeld published a seminal paper in 1979 describing the thermodynamics of aerosols containing inorganic constituents, showing how the particles respond to changing conditions in the atmosphere. He also revealed the role of organic species in aerosols and the process by which vapor molecules become incorporated into particles. Today, his work continues to focus on large questions such as what effect aerosols have on cloud formation.

Seinfeld is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Among other distinctions, he has won the American Chemical Society's Award for Creative Advances in Environmental Science and Technology in 1993; the Fuchs Award, the highest award for research in aerosol science, in 1998; the Nevada Medal in 2001; and the Stodola Medal from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in 2008. He has also received honorary doctorates from the University of Patras, Carnegie Mellon University, and Clarkson University.

The John & Alice Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement was established in 1973 and is administered by the University of Southern California. Awardees are selected by an executive committee.

Seinfeld and Kirk R. Smith, professor of global environmental health at UC Berkeley, will share a $200,000 prize and will be given gold medallions at an award ceremony in Los Angeles on April 27.

Written by Kimm Fesenmaier