UCI Medal Awarded to Professor Scott Samuelsen

June 19, 2012
Beating the Smog

It was summer 1959, and 17-year-old Scott Samuelsen jumped on his three-speed Raleigh Bicycle to pedal the 65 miles from Balboa Island, where he served as a counselor at the Pasadena Presbyterian Church’s Mar Casa summer camp, to his family’s home in Pasadena. It was just 3:30 a.m.

"In those days," Samuelsen recalls, "the smog in Pasadena was such that you were discouraged from exercising late in the morning and into the afternoon. It would make your eyes and lungs burn and cause you to wheeze. I left early, determined to beat the smog alerts." That preoccupation with air pollution – coupled with a lifelong fascination with trains and planes – ignited Samuelsen’s interest in combustion, the major source of smog, and inspired a lasting professional quest to help resolve the inherent conflict between power generation and the environment.

Today, the internationally respected professor of mechanical, aerospace and environmental engineering and Henry Samueli Endowed Chair continues to battle smog and other forms of air pollution, but he does so from a decidedly more sophisticated platform. As director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center, the Advanced Power and Energy Program, and the UCI Combustion Laboratory – founded 40 years ago under his direction – Professor Scott Samuelsen interacts with researchers around the world, and informs policymakers and business leaders from Europe to China on the benefits of advanced power generation and its relationship to the environment and the global economy.

That he was born in the 1940s and raised in Pasadena – the early hot bed for smog – undeniably helped shape Samuelsen’s future. Industrialization had resulted in worsening air quality for decades, but it wasn’t until 1943 that the term "smog" was coined to characterize the burgeoning Los Angeles haze. No one knew initially what caused it, but refineries, power plants, incinerators and automobiles were the prime suspects.

In 1952, Arie J. Haagen-Smit, a chemistry professor at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, revealed that ozone, the primary ingredient in smog, was not directly emitted from tailpipes or smokestacks, but was created instead in the atmosphere. Driven by sunlight, a photochemical reaction in the air combined the partially burned hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides emitted from automobiles and power plants to form ozone.

As a high school student, Samuelsen was troubled by the hold that smog had over his and others’ outdoor activities, and he read with interest about its devastating effects on public health. At the same time, proximity to the Santa Fe Depot in Pasadena inspired his love of trains, by then a known contributor to air pollution. Each day, the El Capitan, Chief and Super Chief passenger trains operated by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway departed the station for Chicago, with Samuelsen observing as often as possible. This, coupled with the power of jet engines propelling the early years of intercontinental travel, inspired an educational path dedicated to reducing pollutant emissions from combustion sources and the development of alternative power sources.

By the time he entered UC Berkeley in mechanical engineering, Samuelsen – the son of celebrated sports journalist and Rose Bowl historian Rube Samuelsen and Doris, a popular secondary school teacher – understood that research was instrumental to his goal.

Along the way, various internships further strengthened his training in energy. As a sophomore, he interned with Southern California Edison, where he was given assignments at the Etiwanda Generating Station in western San Bernardino County and the Huntington Beach Power Plant.

As a junior, he interned with DuPont in South Carolina and Delaware, studying the role of lead in gasoline and the Rankine cycle engine for automobiles. Between his senior year and embarking on his master’s degree, Samuelsen interned at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, conducting research on nuclear fission. For his master’s research, he explored the combustion of alternative fuels for the automobile and later accepted a position at Stanford Research Institute, where he conducted experiments underground at the Nevada Test Site to further bolster his knowledge of nuclear energy.

Returning to UC Berkeley two years later, Samuelsen earned his doctorate with an emphasis on reducing emissions from gas turbine engines, which were then emerging as a propulsion strategy for aircraft and a principal candidate for the generation of electricity. A course in propulsion that he was asked to teach to 40 aspiring mechanical engineering seniors moved him to realize that teaching would play an integral role in his professional life.

In 1970, he joined a budding civil engineering and environmental program at UC Irvine and added combustion and air quality to the established areas of water quality and water resources. Soon thereafter, founding Dean Robert F. Saunders asked Samuelsen to establish a mechanical engineering program that today is the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

The success of Samuelsen’s energy programs is anchored in long-standing collaborations with industry, faculty at UCI and universities throughout the world, and what he characterizes as "terrific research students and staff," and the "remarkable community of campus support" required to negotiate and manage intellectual property, risk and materiel, and contracts.

"Our program is indebted to Founding Chancellor Dan Aldrich’s original vision of collaboration, environmental study, and a responsive and supportive administrative bias toward working at 'the edge.' As a result, UCI is unique in the world with its broad portfolio of internationally acclaimed research in both energy and the environment," he says.

Samuelsen’s wife of 46 years, Sharon, also is a native of Pasadena and graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in design and art history. She, too, is focused on energy, managing her own business in nutrition and herbal foods to fuel human power. The couple is passionate about the wilderness and enjoys backpacking, camping, hiking, and climbing. Not surprisingly, they have "lost" their three grown children to locations associated with nature and adventure. Their son, Garin, lives in Waterbury, Vermont, with wife Jenn and son Noah, and is a teacher at a private, environmentally centric school in nearby Burlington. Justelle, one of the Samuelsen’s twin daughters, lives in Boulder, Colorado, with husband Matt and their two daughters, Ellie and Maddie, and teaches government and history at a high school in Longmont. Twin Shelby lives in Denver with husband Kurt and their two daughters, Kelsey and Delaney, and teaches reading and literacy in the city.