Professor Barry Crittenden: 50 years of chemical engineering

Posted in: 50 years of chemical engineering, Faculty of Engineering and Design, Staff insight

In this series of blog posts celebrating our Department of Chemical Engineering's 50th anniversary, we asked previous Heads of Depts about their time at Bath. Here, Professor Barry Crittenden, who was Head of Department from 1993 to 1997 and 2004 to 2007 answers our questions.

Do you have any fun anecdotes about your time in the Department?

Coming across a well-dressed young man on Paddington Station’s concourse early one evening, accepting his invitation to have a drink, downing some pints with him, and eventually admitting that I hadn’t a clue who he was. He was, of course, a Bath chemical engineering graduate that I had not recognised because he looked so much smarter and more professional than I could remember him as a student. I would subsequently use this anecdote at degree congregation receptions to remind fresh graduates not only to offer me a drink if they were to stumble across me anywhere in the world but also, and just as importantly, to tell me who they were.

There is absolutely no truth in the rumour that I fell into the Kennet and Avon Canal when cycling home one evening from the University. Rumours stick, however, and so one year at a students’ Chemical Engineering Ball, I was presented with a prize consisting of a pair of stabilisers for my bicycle. Was that gift preferable, I ask myself, to the model aeroplane presented by the students on the same night to another Professor in the Department on account of their conclusion that all his lectures went above their heads?

Pleading with Diane Aderyn, the University’s Director of Finance in 1996, to approve my request when Head of School to take out from University funds the equivalent of £10,000 cash in US dollars to take them to Poland where I intended to give the money to some Russians. Nervously, Diane asked me whether I knew what I was doing because if this was not all above board then I would run the risk of getting the sack. 'Trust me', I said, 'I am a chemical engineer' and so she let me have the money. The background to this story is that I had won a £28,000 grant from NATO to run an Advanced Research Workshop on 'Environmentally Benign Chemical Technologies' in Wroclaw, Poland, and I needed the cash to reimburse the travel expenses for scientists and engineers coming from former Eastern European bloc countries. I can’t tell you what I did with the remaining £18,000 but, of course, I did balance the books, and I did keep my job.

What did you find most challenging in your time as Head of Department?

Reducing the annual operating deficit from £860k in 2004 to a surplus of £250k in 2007 so that the University could be encouraged to like us again! It did.

Getting the door knocked through on Level 2 from 9 West into 5 West in the mid-2000s so that our staff and students no longer had to walk outside in the wind and rain in order to get to other parts of the University.

What is/was your favourite subject to teach?

First and final-year design projects provided me with immense fun wrapped up in the provision of capstone academic challenges for our students throughout my career at Bath. I put together my first final-year design project (ammonia via steam reforming of natural gas) for the BSc degree when I was seconded to Kellogg International Corporation throughout the hot Summer of 1975. I fondly recall that some of the project development was carried out with Kellogg’s process engineers in the bars and restaurants around Baker Street in London. I continued running first-year and final-year design projects at Bath until I retired in 2016 – you couldn’t keep me away from them, I enjoyed them so much.

What were some of your highlights or achievements?

Giving my full support as a young Lecturer to Professor W John Thomas in his quest to gain the independence of chemical engineering from chemistry in 1974. And, of course, helping to organise and enjoy the subsequent riotous celebrations at a steak house in Batheaston.

three men in suits and dicky bows sit on bar stools a bar in pub with a dog at their feet
3 successive Heads of Chemical Engineering (right to left: Thomas, Howell and Crittenden) enjoying a drink  on my election to Fellowship of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2001.

Kickstarting an important national environmental agenda in process engineering by co-authoring the IChemE’s 'Guide to Waste Minimisation' with Professor Stan Kolaczkowski in 1995.

Leading the School of Chemical Engineering to Grade 5A with all academic staff entered in the funding council’s 1996 Research Assessment Exercise.

Winning IChemE’s Hutchison Medal in 1996 as co-author of a research publication on the novel subject of 'Design for Decommissioning'.

Explaining successfully in 1998, in no uncertain terms and at some length, to the eminent Desmond Browne CBE KC, former Chairman of the Bar Council, what a chemical engineer was when asked by him in his Gray’s Inn chambers: 'and what do I make of you as a chemist?' I put him right on the professions, starting by telling him that a chemical engineer can do for one pound what it would cost a chemist two pounds to do. From then on, I enjoyed Desmond’s sense of humour as his mind began to unravel how valuable chemical engineers were to society. The occasion was my support for the defence of a large French chemical company that was being sued by a miscreant cattle farmer.

Being elected to Fellowship of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2001, being the third and final Head of School of Chemical Engineering at Bath to achieve this honour.

Being honoured with conferment of the title Emeritus Professor in 2019, one significant benefit being that I am now able to park at the University of Bath for free!

Do you have a favourite spot at the University or in the Department?

The library. Knowledge and literature form the heart of academia and the library is at the centre of the University. Furthermore, I could always find a quiet spot in there to recover from postprandial somnolence.

Another favourite spot would be a 'secret' bench in the University’s grounds where, as the Head of Chemical Engineering, I would often escape from my office to chew the cud in warm sunshine with the last Head of Materials Science over the ultimate questions of Life, the Universe and Everything else including whatever the University was intent on chucking at us Heads. We both just wished that the answer was a plain and simple '42'.

If you were to have a chemical engineering-related tattoo (e.g. formula, famous engineer, quote etc), what would it be?

The symbol 'Cu' for copper as it would remind me of my first research publication in 1966: 'Some Interesting Reactions of Copper', co-authored with Martyn Berry, one of my school chemistry teachers. Looking back, I don’t think that the reactions were particularly interesting, but the paper did help me to obtain the established post of Professor of Chemical Engineering at Bath in 1991 because, surprising me no end at the time, it formed the basis of the first question at my interview posed by Professor Jeff Thompson (of the University’s School of Education). What I didn’t know at the time was that Thompson and my co-author Berry, both being chemists, were the best of professional friends.

The continuity equation. I’d have two sides of the equation split over my two arms so that I would always feel as though I was well balanced.

It was hard for me to choose a 'famous' chemical engineer out of a long list of possibles. However, top of my list has to be Captain Virgil Hilts, aka 'The Cooler King', as portrayed by Steve McQueen in the 1963 film 'The Great Escape'. My tattoo of course would have to show the legendary Virgil jumping over a barbed-wire barrier on his motorbike.

Do you have any inspiring colleagues, lecturers, friends, or students you'd like to thank?

There are many potentials on my list, but there are two inspirational colleagues who had a profound impact on my career:

The late George Goddard aka 'Basher' for inspiring me in the first place to become a chemical engineer. He was a fantastic 'old school' chemistry teacher, an excellent golfer, and an amateur boxer. His pupils did and learnt what they were told – there could be no messing with Basher.

The late Professor W John Thomas, who founded Chemical Engineering at Bath in 1968 and who had the confidence to appoint me as a young Lecturer in 1973. My friendship and collaboration with John lasted for over 40 years, winning research grants, attending conferences together, publishing papers, and co-authoring a standard textbook on adsorption. Informal collaboration involved puzzling over the theories and equations that he scribbled in no particular order all over my office blackboard and, of course, joining him for a drink or two or three…either at his home, or in the University’s Senior Common Room, or in a bar somewhere else in the UK and Europe.

If you had to describe the Department (in your time) in three words, what would they be?

Good, better, best.

If you could give your younger self a bit of advice now, what would it be?

Don’t be put off by the small size and doubtful reputation of the University of Bath in 1973. This University is going to go places, and chemical engineering is going to be an important part of its success story.

Posted in: 50 years of chemical engineering, Faculty of Engineering and Design, Staff insight