Read the fascinating story of one of our alumni, Joseph Sant’Angelo, Class of 1954. This article appeared in the Spring/Summer issue of Mass Transfer, our alumni and friends newsletter.
It was around 1 or 2 a.m. and Joe Sant’Angelo had just finished processing high-speed photographs of heat transfer and was on his way back to Newman Hall.
“It was a beautiful snowy night. The lights were on and I was halfway across the Quad when the Altgeld bells started chiming. I’ll never forget it,” he said of one of his many fond memories of Illinois.
Those high-speed photography experiments under the guidance of Dr. James W. Westwater would garner Sant’Angelo an award from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and help launch his career, one that would span more than half a century and include work on everything from reactors for the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to flame-resistant astronaut suits.
Retirement for Sant’Angelo has involved fishing, boating, and some golf, but it’s also revolved around developing new technology such as breathable fire extinguishing gas and liquid bandages.
With 29 plus patents to his name, Sant’Angelo has found success in research and development and credits Illinois for building the foundation for that success.
Born and raised in northern New Jersey, Sant’Angelo said it was pure luck that he happened to become a student at the University of Illinois.
As a child of Italian immigrant parents, he had a natural curiosity of all things around him. His father made his own wine and his mother canned tomatoes. A neighbor had a photo studio. Chemistry fascinated him. He passed his time at his hometown library in Passaic, and to save money for college he ran the photo department in the local sporting goods store. At 18, he entered the U.S. Air Force and eventually made his way to Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Illinois, where he would become the base photographer.
At Chanute he met a University of Illinois professor who invited him to visit the campus and arranged a job for him in the university’s visual aid department. He enrolled in chemical engineering.
“I was mechanically inclined and curious about things. Chemical engineering was the best fit,” he said.
When Professor Westwater learned of Sant’Angelo’s photography skills, he encouraged the young student to take pictures of the heat transfer of boiling. It was a challenging task and one other researchers had struggled with.
Westwater suggested using a copper tube heated by steam in a glass box containing methanol. Sant’Angelo constructed the unit and built the photographic system—taking motion pictures at 4,000 frames per second and still photos at one-millionth of a second—to capture the heat transfer mechanisms from convection, nucleate and film boiling. The pictures showed conduction waves, the formation rise and coalescence of bubbles, and the vapor film around the copper tube.
Westwater signed him up for the 1953 AIChE annual convention in St. Louis to present his paper on high speed photographing of heat transfer. But the first photos were not turning out.
Sant’Angelo experimented with many different lighting and camera arrangements until excellent pictures were achieved, complimenting his heat transfer calculations where every BTU had to be accounted for. The high speed motion pictures captured the complete heat transfer mechanisms, which provided a new visual understanding of the heat transfer curve, he said.
“Two weeks before the convention (Westwater) comes running into my area, “Joe! The last films were beautiful, clear as could be!”
Sant’Angelo presented that paper and received the award for best student research paper of the year. It was later published in Chemical Engineering Progress and Scientific American.
Westwater asked him to stay on to work on a Ph.D. degree, but Sant’Angelo, after spending the summer at Celanese Research Labs in New Jersey, decided to enter research and development. At the time, Celanese was looking for people to work on new polymer, cellulose triacetate, for its “wash and wear” and permanent crease fabric. After graduation, Sant’Angelo returned to Celanese to commercialize the product.
From photos to PBI
After several years of commercializing cellulose triacetate with Celanese, Sant’Angelo was recruited by the Atomic Energy Commission, which was interested in hiring people with backgrounds in heat transfer. After much convincing, he moved to Pittsburgh and joined the team designing and building nuclear reactors for the USS Enterprise.
“I didn’t know much about nuclear reaction, but I did know about heat transfer and fluid flow. I learned as we went along,” he said.
During the construction phase in Idaho he had the responsibility to either accept or reject any components in the reactor that deviated from the engineering drawings, and to optimize the placement of nuclear fuel in the reactors.
“I would not know for many years if I had made the correct decisions,” he said.
The 1,123-foot-long USS Enterprise, with its eight nuclear reactors, launched in 1960. It would remain in service for over 50 years, becoming the oldest active duty ship in the U.S. Naval fleet. The USS Enterprise was inactivated in 2012.
Working on the carrier provided Sant’Angelo with a great sense of satisfaction, but after it was finished, he was ready to return to basic chemical engineering-type of projects.
Back at Celanese, he became involved in a number of different projects, most notably on a new polymer with Illinois ties.
On Jan. 27, 1967, three astronauts with Apollo 1, the first manned lunar program, were killed in a cabin fire that occurred during a launch test at Cape Canaveral. The U.S. Air Force suspended the mission, launched an investigation and later issued a request for bids from companies interested in developing heat and flame-resistant fabrics.
Enter Illinois chemistry professor Carl Shipp Marvel and Celanese.
Marvel, a pioneer in synthetic polymers, had been working on heat-resistant polymers at Illinois. Could a fiber and fabric be made out of the new polymer? Did the polymer (called polybenzimidazole, or PBI) have commercial potential? Sant’Angelo and the company would set out to answer those questions.
After about two or three years of work, Marvel was invited to Celanese’s pilot plant.
Marvel “was a terrific organic chemistry professor. He was personable and had a great sense of humor,” Sant’Angelo said. “The last time he saw PBI was probably in a small reactor, so seeing large reactors producing polymer, spinning columns producing fibers, and looms making the fabric, he was like a kid in toy shop,” said Sant’Angelo, who was also just as excited to demonstrate to his former professor the company’s progress.
In addition to being heat and flame-resistant, the new fibers retained their strength and flexibility when exposed to flame. PBI has become a vital material to the aerospace, military and motor sports industry, as well as to emergency responders such as firefighters.
Sant’Angelo would spend another 12 years at Celanese, in the research labs and in the corporate commercial development department. In addition to working on PBI, he also worked on carbon fibers, foamed cellulose for disposable diapers, polyurethane elastic fibers, highly-efficient cigarette filters, and more.
Fire extinguishing gas, copolymers
After Celanese, Sant’Angelo moved to Air Products and Chemicals to become the company’s director of research. There he was involved in a process used by paper mills to reduce the smell and recover heat generated by the oxygen used. He also worked on supercritical CO2 extraction of tea, oxygen bleaching and pulping to replace chlorine, and many other projects. He spent 20 years at Air Products and while there was part of its recruiting team and brought in many Illinois chemical engineering graduates.
What he found most interesting at Air Products was the development of a breathable fire extinguishing gas. Made of 10 to 15 percent oxygen, 3 percent carbon dioxide, and the rest nitrogen, Sant’Angelo said the product was created in conjunction with Christian Lambertsen, who was credited with developing the Navy’s “frogman breathers.”
Twenty years later the technology can be found in countries around the world.
In recent years Sant’Angelo has been working on replacing the tanks of that system with a membrane unit that does not require tanks. He plans to install the membrane system on a full-scale fire truck (with the goal of making the system portable) and test it at the U of I’s Fire Service Institute. In addition to being a product for fire departments, Sant’Angelo envisions its use in places like tunnels, submarines or aircraft, “any place where you want to make the atmosphere nonexplosive and where people can breathe.”
With Dr. Perry Robins, an emeritus dermatology professor from New York University Medical Center, he’s also working on carbon dioxide polymers for medical applications. The first application is in liquid bandages, which has received FDA approval.
“In the tests we’ve run, it’s killed every bacteria we could get ahold of, including MRSA,” he said.
After Air Products he was involved with PAC Polymers, Inc. (now called Empower Materials) to commercialize poly(alkylene carbonate) copolymers and was affiliated with it until 2000.
Throughout his career, Sant’Angelo was offered other positions in companies, but his heart has always been in research and development and he valued his time to develop new ideas. For example, when he was at Celanese he was allowed to spend 15 percent of his time working on anything he wanted, and that led to development of systems such as a new, faster spinneret that would be installed at a factory in Mexico.
Of all the patents to his name, Sant’Angelo said “those are related to the education I got at Illinois. My education there was second to none.”