Apollo 11, rock and roll and 50 years of chemical engineering

Featured photo: From left to right: Prof. Steven Bradshaw, Prof. Hansie Knoetze, Mr Marius Louw, Mrs Pia Nel, Prof. Jannie van Deventer and Dr Eric Horsten. The glass trophies were hand-blown by the Red Hot Glass studio.

1969 was an epic year: Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the powdery surface of the moon, more than half a million hippies gathered for four days of rock and roll at Woodstock and Stellenbosch University founded its new Department of Chemical Engineering in what is now known as the Visual Arts building!

On Friday, 13 September, 120 chemical engineers and their partners gathered at the Lanzerac Cellar Hall to celebrate half a century of excellence. The Department of Chemical Engineering, now the Department of Process Engineering, started out with one academic staff member – Prof. Nico Louw, who was the first chair in 1969 – and one student. Today the department has 19 academic staff members, more than 10 post-doctoral fellows, more than 20 support staff, 420 undergraduates, 85 Master’s students and 35 PhD students.

In 2018 the department’s research unit output per academic was 5.5 units, more than double the institutional expectation of Stellenbosch University, which is currently the university with the highest research unit output per academic in South Africa.

In the stylish surroundings of this beautiful venue, five stalwarts told the growth story of the department. Professors Hansie Knoetze, Jannie Van Deventer and Steven Bradshaw who have collectively spent eighty years at Stellenbosch University, recounted stories of pre-internet times when there were only two fax machines on campus and personal computers could only be procured as “controllers” because administration staff were the only staff members allowed to buy PCs from university funds.

Marius Louw, son of the late Prof. Nico Louw, remembered his father’s extraordinary meticulousness and love of aeroplanes and flying. The open note book in the foyer, hand-written flawlessly by his dad, poignantly captured the spirit of a man who did his PhD at Karlsruhe University and then returned to South Africa to pioneer the first chemical engineering department at Stellenbosch University.

Dr Eric Horsten, one of the first academics at the fledgling department, stood in for his close friend and delivered the carefully hand-written speech by Carel Nel, who had served the department for 27 years since 1971.

But the evening did not just celebrate the past. Dr Margreth Tadi, who was recently awarded a FLAIR fellowship, funded by The African Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society, said she was impressed with the high quality of undergraduate teaching and research of her colleagues, and reiterated the department’s vision to be an outstanding and inclusive department.

Prof. André Burger, Chairman of the department and one of its first 100 graduates, concluded the celebration by lauding the exceptional quality and passion of lecturers, support staff and students at the department. “I have no doubt this department will continue the legacy of excellence, professionalism, integrity and productivity instilled by the founding members,” he said.

Prof. Jannie van Deventer receives a trophy from Prof. André Burger for driving early research initiatives at the department.

Prof. Nico Louw’s meticulous hand-written notes with photos of the department then and now.