The University of Delaware can trace its origin to a small Presbyterian Academy started by Francis Alison in the mid 1700’s. Its College of Engineering was established in the early 1890’s with programs in civil electrical and mechanical engineering. Although the first degree in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering was awarded in 1915 the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering was effectively established with arrival of Allan P. Colburn in 1938. Dr. Colburn, building upon his PhD experience from the University of Wisconsin and a very effective collaboration with Dr. T Chilton of the DuPont Company, initiated an extensive research program which in a very short time attracted enough external funds to support a staff of over 20 researchers. By the late 1940’s Dr. Colburn had hired enough talented faculty to start a significant undergraduate program. He became University Provost and Coordinator of Scientific Research in the late 1940’s and turned over the building and operation of the department to Robert L Pigford whom he had convinced to leave the Engineering Department of the DuPont Company. Dr. Pigford built upon the pioneering work of Colburn in heat transfer to establish a mass transfer research effort in which experiment was effectively compared with mathematical models. In the mid 1960’s when the American Council on Education published its first ever rankings of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Departments the University of Delaware’s department was ranked 5th in the nation. This commitment to excellence has characterized the departments teaching and research efforts to this day.
Abraham Lenhoff, the University of Delaware’s Allan P. Colburn Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, delivered his inaugural lecture on Wednesday, April 25, 2012. His presentation, “The Colburn Papers,” uses the University of Delaware Library’s collection of Colburn’s early papers to explore characteristics of chemical engineering education and research in the 1920s and 1930s. In particular, the presentation features extracts from an extensive set of Colburn’s class notes from his University of Wisconsin classes in the 1920s, and research and administrative documents from Colburn’s career at DuPont and UD from the 1930s to the 1950s.
The department was responsible for establishing and employing the universities first computing facilities in the mid 60’s. A research center for Catalytic Science and Technology and a research Center for Molecular and Engineering Thermodynamics have existed for several decades and have gained significant recognition from both academic and industrial concerns. The Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department’s students and faculty continue to play a significant role in the University of Delaware’s Center for Composite Materials, the Delaware Biotechnology Institute, and the Institute of Energy Conversion. Six members of its faculty have been elected to the National Academy of Engineering and another six faculty who began their academic careers in the department have also achieved this unique honor.