Margaret Wu (center) receives the 2007 Industrial Chemistry Award from ACS President Catherine Hunt (right) and the Division of Business Development and Management Chair Janet Bryant (left) at the ACS Spring National meeting.

Margaret Wu (center) receives the 2007 Industrial Chemistry Award from ACS President Catherine Hunt (right) and the Division of Business Development and Management Chair Janet Bryant (left) at the ACS Spring National meeting.

Motor oil is an essential chemical product that most people think about only every few thousand miles when it’s time for an oil change. But thanks to chemists like Margaret M. Wu, who think about oil all the time, lubricant products have continued to improve over the years to meet the performance needs of our new cars.

Wu, a senior scientific adviser at ExxonMobil Research & Engineering, in Annandale, N.J., has been recognized as a top industrial chemist for her “creative and outstanding research contributions leading to breakthrough synthetic lubricant products of considerable commercial and environmental importance.” In addition to synthetic lubricants, Wu’s research has contributed significantly to technology in areas as diverse as polymer synthesis, homogeneous and heterogeneous catalysis, and zeolite chemistry. “The knowledge and exposure to science in different areas early in my career has provided me a fertile ground for developing synergies and novel solutions that would not have been obvious if I had focused only in one area,” she says.

For instance, in the early 1980s, Wu did pioneering work to produce ethylene from methanol in high yields by using proprietary zeolite catalysts. But her major discovery came a few years later when she took advantage of her experience to develop a new class of synthetic oil hydrocarbon base stocks. These antiwear fluids are used in the Mobil1 with SuperSyn brand of synthetic automotive engine oil and other products. They help improve engine oil life, reduce engine wear, and improve fuel economy.

“Margaret has essentially revolutionized how automobile and industrial lubricants are designed and synthesized,” notes colleague Hsueh-Chia Chang, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana. “By using combinatorial high-throughput testing and molecular-level insight, she can judiciously select the plethora of additives and functional groups needed to tailor lubricants for different operating conditions. She designs lubricants like molecular biologists design new anticancer drugs.” She also was a key participant in the team effort to bring this important family of products to successful commercialization. The fluids are now present in a host of ExxonMobil products, including lubricants for new low-emission automobiles and for various types of industrial machinery.

Wu, 56, was born and raised in Taiwan. She received a B.S. degree in chemical engineering from Taipei Institute of Technology in 1970. She then traveled to the U.S. for graduate studies and received a Ph.D. in physical organic chemistry from the University of Rochester in 1976. After a short stint as a process chemist with American Cyanamid, Wu joined Mobil’s Petrochemicals Division in Edison, N.J., in 1978. In 2002, she became the first woman to be named to the prestigious rank of senior scientific adviser at ExxonMobil. In addition to many internal company awards, she received the Thomas Alva Edison Award in 2005 from the New Jersey R&D Council for her accomplishments.

“I find the work of an industrial chemist to be important and rewarding, because I can see the fruits of my labors,” Wu observes. “Whether it’s a product on the shelf or a process to produce something useful, I know it’s improving the quality of life for many people in my own community and around the world.” She adds that industrial chemists have evolved from working nearly alone in the lab to working as part of a team of scientists from different areas to bring products to the market in a fast-changing and competitive business environment. “That’s always refreshing and exciting,” she says.

The award was presented at the 2007 ACS national meeting in Chicago.

[Adapted from Chemical & Engineering News with permission.]