(Jan. 30, 1924 - Jan. 13, 2023)
George Burnet was chemical engineering’s second-longest serving department head. He held the position for 17 years, and then went on to serve in several other administrative positions.
George Burnet was born to George and Myrtle (Hutchinson) Burnet of Fort Dodge, Iowa, on January 30, 1924. He became fascinated with chemistry at a young age when his Fort Dodge, Iowa, high school chemistry teacher heated up flour dust in a coffee can. When the dust was exposed to an open flame, the resulting explosion blew the lid off the can.
But Burnet had come from a long line of engineers. His father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather had all been civil engineers. They were also all named George. Burnet was George V. So combining his interest in chemistry with an almost genetic inclination toward engineering seemed only right.
When he came to Iowa State, a certain professor validated Burnet’s decision. “When I got to O.R. Sweeney’s senior industrial chemistry class at Iowa State, I was really hooked,” he said in a 1992 Chemical Engineering Education profile. “His lectures convinced students that chemical engineers could do anything.”
But World War II stalled Burnet’s academic pursuits for four years. He had already taken three-fourths of the required courses, as well as ROTC training, when he entered the chemical warfare service. He later went through officer training, was field artillery commissioned and served overseas in the war’s South Pacific Theater. He returned to Iowa State to finish his BS in 1948. He earned his MS in 1949 and a PhD in 1951.
Burnet spent several years in the private sector before joining the Iowa State faculty in 1955. He became department head in 1961. Burnet also served as chief of Ames Laboratory’s chemical engineering division from 1961-1973.
Burnet would ultimately turn to the research subject that would dominate his career: fly ash, a byproduct of pulverized coal that was burned for the production of electricity. Coal was attracting renewed interest as a fossil fuel because of the oil crisis in the 1970s.
Most fly ash was dumped into ravines and landfills, which posed environmental problems because it contained traces of arsenic, mercury and lead. Research on the fundamental properties and reactions of fly ash to determine whether it could be used for soil stabilization was already going on in civil engineering at Iowa State. Burnet had another idea. He applied a chemical engineer’s perspective to the topic, envisioning fly ash as a raw material for processing to recover several valuable products.
Fly ash typically contains 35 percent alumina, 20 to 24 percent iron oxide and 1 to 1.5 percent titania, as well as some silica.
“An ore with a composition like that would be an attractive raw material to mine, and millions of tons of this waste product with a high and uniform quality are readily available in fixed locations,” Burnet said in the Chemical Engineering Education article.
Burnet and his team set out to find efficient ways to process fly ash. They focused on two: the Ames lime-soda sinter process and the HiChlor process.
The lime-soda sinter process involved heating fly ash in the presence of lime and a small amount of sodium carbonate. This converted the alumina into soluble calcium and sodium aluminates. The silica became an insoluble calcium silicate. Using a very dilute sodium carbonate solution to adjust pH, the researchers were able to extract 90 percent of the alumina in a very pure form. “Portland cement is a tricalcium silicate, so you simply add more limestone to the residue, heat — and you have Portland cement. You’ve used everything. There’s nothing left but the squeal,” Burnet said in his profile.
The HiChlor process used high temperatures while treating a metal oxide with chlorine in the presence of carbon. This produced a stream of gaseous metal chlorides mixed with carbon oxides. “The carbon acts as an oxygen-getter and removes the oxygen from the reaction system so you get a mixture of metal chlorides. You condense and separate these metal chlorides and get metals in the form of halides,” Burnet shared in the profile.
By the late 1980s, Burnet, who has four patents to his credit, and his group had thoroughly investigated both processes and patented certain aspects of them.
Burnet’s work was featured in a prominent article in an Oct. 28, 1986, issue of The Des Moines Register. The story also includes a wonderful anecdote about a successful and entertaining pitch Burnet made for a U.S. Department of Energy grant to fund the fly ash work. At a meeting with a government official, he pulled a small bottle of fly ash and a can of Olympia beer out of his briefcase. With the aluminum in this small amount of fly ash, Burnet reportedly told the official, you can make an all-aluminum beverage can. He got a $50,000 research grant. He still has that beer can.
Burnet’s had a variety responsibilities within the College of Engineering. He took over the Engineering Education Projects Office, which was discontinued in 1990. He was then named the College of Engineering’s associate dean of outreach and external affairs. He was appointed interim dean of the College of Engineering in 1994.
Burnet took great pride in his involvement in professional organizations, both for the prestige it brought to Iowa State’s chemical engineering department and for the impact it had on engineering education across the country. Perhaps nobody in the history of chemical engineering at Iowa State has been more actively involved in these professional organizations, and he was duly recognized for it during his long, honor-filled career.
He served as president of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), as well as on a number of the organization’s committees, including chairing its 1993 Centennial Committee. He was national president of Omega Chi Epsilon, the chemical engineering honor society, from 1970-1972. He also was active in the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).
Engineering education was his passion, and he published and lectured extensively on the topic. He served on committees and panels of the National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Energy and a variety of other organizations. From 1983-1987 he was U.S. representative to Committee on Education and Training, which was part of the World Federation of Engineering Organizations. He is a founding member of the Iowa section of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), and was active with the American Chemical Society, Iowa Academy of Science and National Society of Professional Engineers.
His ASEE work earned him a seat on a 20-member Commission on Precollege Education in Mathematics, Science and Technology, appointed in 1982 by the National Science Board. The commission produced Educating Americans for the 21st Century, which, among other recommendations, strongly called for the increased use of computers in education.
This work did not go unrecognized. Burnet was named an Anson Marston Distinguished Professor of Engineering at Iowa State, and earned a variety of accolades from the organizations he served. ASEE gave him its top honors, including the Benjamin Garver Lamme Award in 1982, the W. Leighton Collins Award in 1991 and the Centennial Medallion in 1993. In 1981, he received the AIChE Founders Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Field of Chemical Engineering. ABET gave Burnet its Linton E. Grinter Distinguished Service Award.
Just prior to retiring in 1995, Burnet was honored by a $1 million deferred gift to the university for the George Burnet Chair in Chemical Engineering.
George Burnet married Betty A. Riggs of Wesley, Iowa. Together they had six children: Kathryn, Betty Jo, Dolores, Joan, Elaine, and George, Jr. Betty died in 1993 and George later married Agatha Huepenbecker. Agatha, who passed away in 2013, had served as Head of the Department of Textiles and Clothing at Iowa State for many years. On May 9, 2014, Martha Claire Anderson became his wife.
In 2017, Burnet was selected to have his portrait painted by Rose Frantzen as part of the Faces of Iowa State project (above).
Burnet passed away in January of 2023. He is survived by five children.
George Burnet Papers, RS 11/04/17, University Archives, Special Collections, Iowa State University Library, Ames, Iowa.
Iowa State chemical engineering’s George Burnet celebrates 90th, February 10, 2014 by Chris Neary. https://news.engineering.iastate.edu/2014/02/10/iowa-state-chemical-engineerings-george-burnet-celebrates-90th/
Iowa State Foundation Profile: https://www.foundation.iastate.edu/s/1463/giving/interior.aspx?pgid=1013&gid=1&cid=6467
Obituary, Ames Tribune https://www.amestrib.com/obituaries/piow0413505