W. Robert Epperly
Department of Chemical Engineering
Class of 1956, BS; Class of 1958, MS
For Virginia Tech, Robert Epperly represents the epitome of the local boy who rose to the status of the captains of industry. Born in his grandparents’ home in the tiny community of Rogers, part of Christiansburg, Virginia, his family moved a few months later to Pulaski, Virginia, where they operated a grocery store. His Virginia ancestors were among the Epperlys who co-founded the Zion Lutheran Church in Floyd County in 1813.
Thanks to his mother’s influence, he was the first generation in his family to attend college in 1952. She promised his father she would work at the family grocery store if Bob, her only child, could enroll at Virginia Tech. Since money remained an issue, the teenager carpooled to the campus for his first two years, and continued to help out at the grocery store in the summers. By the time his junior year arrived in chemical engineering, he realized that the intense coursework meant he would need to live in Blacksburg. A university professor rented him a room, and with a life that almost totally focused on academics, he secured a fellowship by his senior year, and continued on for graduate school in 1956. One exception to his tunnel vision towards academics was that he met his future bride, Sarah, when he was a senior.
Another stroke of good luck also came the summer before his senior year. The chemical company E.I. Dupont hired him, and the paycheck he received was a far cry from the grocery store. When he showed the earnings to his father, he recalls his dad had tears streaming down his face.
He and Sarah became the first couple to marry in the Blacksburg Presbyterian Church on the day she earned her bachelor’s degree in 1957. With a quick honeymoon in Asheville, North Carolina, the family man completed his master’s degree in the following six weeks by writing his thesis. Exxon, the company that provided his fellowship, showed a lot of interest in hiring him, and the work offered to him was “extremely exciting.” It was a boom time for chemical engineers, when the bottom person in his class still had six job offers. He decided the move to Exxon’s facility in Linden, New Jersey, would be the most appealing for a young man from southwest Virginia in the late 1950s.
“We moved to an extremely ethnic area, all of which was brand new to me. I discovered hard bread, Polish Kielbasa, and draft beer. I went to New York, and felt the thrill of Yankee Stadium, and saw the icons – Mickey Mantle and Phil Rizzuto. Sarah went to work as a dietician, and we were both engaged professionally,” Mr. Epperly recalls.
Within three months, he was named a pilot plant supervisor and had four experienced operators working for him. His work gained in responsibility, and in 1968, he was named director of the fuels research laboratory, responsible for product quality research. In this position he led Exxon’s research efforts to guide removal of lead from gasoline. In 1972, he was named the marketing adviser for the Exxon Corporation, responsible for the coordination of marketing research in Exxon affiliates worldwide, including research supporting the Exxon name change. He also managed the centralized marketing engineering research program.
He became manager of Exxon Research’s Texas facility in Baytown in 1973 as the energy crisis of the 1970s was engulfing the nation. He was given the goal of developing a world-class research center focused on synthetic fuels, and he felt confident that the giant oil company would be shifting its focus. As he managed the rapid expansion of the company into major programs in coal liquefaction and gasification, his leadership led to the development of more cost-effective, small-scale experiments and computer modeling, reducing the need for costly pilot plant tests. He also instituted unique ways of integrating the interests of employees with those of the employer that became the subject of a book he co-authored called “Interactive Career Development.”
In 1976, he returned to New Jersey, and negotiated a precedent setting cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy and seven international companies for a $268 million program to develop a coal liquefaction process to commercial readiness. “Exxon could not do this alone, and our efforts increased by a factor of four,” he recalls. In 1977, he was promoted to general manager of the coal liquefaction program, reporting to the vice president of synthetic fuels research.
In 1980, he became general manager of the synthetic fuels department in Exxon Engineering, and his technical responsibility now included all process planning and design in support of three multi-billion dollar commercial projects, and for the engineering support of all synthetic fuels research and development. Staffed with about 100 engineers, he was confronted with the challenge of initiating some of the largest commercial projects that Exxon had ever undertaken. In 1983, he became the senior program manager of synthetic fuels research, with responsibility for coordination of all major process development projects including shale retorting, coal liquefaction, and coal gasification, with a combined annual budget of over $50 million. During his last two years with Exxon until he retired in 1986, Mr. Epperly was the general manager of corporate research and had general administrative responsibility for laboratories with an annual budget of $120 million and 575 employees.
“My most rewarding time with Exxon was the time I spent in synthetic fuels. It was very demanding, yet very rewarding. The entire world thought we needed syn fuels. I really stressed the longer range flavor… But as the oil prices started to decline again, the top management correctly predicted that the oil prices would remain low for a long period, and corporate research was cut in half, against my recommendation. We were trying to build a world-class lab analogous to Bell Labs, and we had stars, the cream of the crop, working for us,” the researcher says. He understood management’s change in directive, but for him, he needed a new challenge.
So, at 51, Mr. Epperly joined the Fuel Tech Group, a publicly held international organization for developing and commercializing technology to improve combustion efficiency of petroleum-fired engines and boilers, and to decrease emissions of undesirable combustions products. By 1989, when he was named the chief executive officer of the Stamford, Connecticut-based operation, it had sales of $12 million with 150 employees. During this time, some one-half of his total of 38 patents was awarded. “It was a very creative period, and it was fun being over 50 and going back to being creative technically,” he smiles. One patent he is particularly proud of concerned a process to remove smog producing nitrogen oxides from flue gas in large steam boilers and incinerators, a process that is commercially employed in over 200 international locations today.
In 1992, he moved to Catalytica, Inc., based in Mountain View, California, as its vice president. Within two years, he became president and director of one of its subsidiaries, Catalytica Advanced Technologies, Inc., a company focused on commercial markets for new catalyst technologies. He retired for the last time in 1997.
Today, he remains a consultant to the energy industry, as well as to Virginia Tech’s energy initiatives. “I actually try not to stay busy now,” he laughs, “as I spent my life being busy. I enjoy nature photography, and I continue to do some volunteer work with the National Academy of Sciences on matters of national importance.” He was recently named a National Associate of the National Research Council of the National Academies after some 30 years of working on various studies.
In regard to his work with Virginia Tech, he is specifically advising Don Leo, associate dean, College of Engineering, who also has the appointed task of coordinating the entire university’s efforts in energy research. “Colleges and universities have to do this work because I do not see the energy companies doing enough of it. I think there is a great opportunity for Virginia Tech in the biofuels area,” Mr. Epperly concludes.
The Epperlys are members of Virginia Tech’s Committee of 100 and the Ut Prosim Society, and he often returns to guest speak to engineering classes. A Fellow of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, he received its 1983 Award in Chemical Engineering Practice. He was part of a team that earned an Industrial Research IR-100 Award, also in 1983. In 1986, the University of Pittsburgh presented him its Award for Innovation in Coal Conversion research, and in 1992, he won the Connecticut Patent Law Association’s Eli Whitney Award.
The Epperlys have three children and three grandchildren.
Class of: 1956, 1958
Year Inducted into the Academy: 2009