Merrell Fenske’s investigations of the composition of crude oil revolutionized the petroleum industry.

Merrell Fenske talks with group of researchers
Penn State University Archives

Fenske, standing, discusses apparatus and procedures with fellow researchers.

Merrell Fenske came to Penn State in 1929, having just earned a Ph.D. from MIT and determined to undertake research that would have impact. He could not have imagined his work would help to make possible U-2 spy planes and ballistic missiles, and create international standards for such petroleum products as hydraulic fluids and motor oil.

Coincidentally Frank Whitmore, new dean of the School of Chemistry and Physics, wanted to elevate scientific research at Penn State and backed Fenske’s plan to investigate the composition of Pennsylvania Grade crude oil. The dean made the 25-year-old Fenske director of the newly created Petroleum Refining Laboratory. The PRL was initially housed in Pond Lab and then moved to the old campus power plant, made vacant by the construction of a new facility.

inside of petroleum refining lab
Penn State University Archives

Columns and other equipment used for distillation and extraction can be seen in this interior view of the Petroleum Refining Lab.

Fenske led a staff of nearly twenty associates, an unprecedented size for its time, made possible in part by a $50,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Grade Crude Oil Association—equally unprecedented in scale. In fact, the association’s grant was Penn State’s first major corporate research grant and planted the seed for industry-sponsored research that now regularly tops $100 million University-wide.

Fenske’s work on gasoline refined from Pennsylvania Grade crude constituted the first studies in which individual petroleum compounds were identified and separated. His techniques and equipment opened up the field for similar studies of other grades at labs worldwide. Distillation separated molecules by size, but Fenske went a step further and separated compounds by molecular type—a pioneering advance that contributed immensely to a better understanding of the refining process. Those investigations—with continuing support from the petroleum industry—also paved the way for the production of high-octane aviation fuels and all-weather hydraulic fluids that were essential to Allied forces during World War II.

Patrick Mansell

Fenske Lab is home to Penn State’s chemical engineering department.

Fenske and his team also improved the process of refining lubricants, revolutionizing viscosity measurement and establishing standards adopted throughout the industry. After the war, their research culminated in perfecting lubricants that could withstand temperatures ranging from -65 degrees F to 600 degrees F, making possible the U-2 aircraft specifically and advancing the capabilities of jet aircraft in general.

“Professor Fenske’s work touched an almost unbelievable number of engineering problems,” recalled a fellow researcher. “The key to his vast number of achievements was his capacity for hard work, and he expected a comparable diligence from his students and colleagues. He was never a forty-hour-a week engineer, nor did he expect as little from his associates.”

Last Updated November 30, 2011