Owen Edward POTTER (1925 - 2020)

Professor of Chemical Engineering (1964 - 1990)

Owen Potter

Emeritus Professor Owen Potter AM, who has died aged 94, was a distinguished chemical engineer and inventor whose outstanding research into drying processes led to a significant reduction in carbon dioxide output at power stations in Victoria and beyond.

Owen was an international figure in his field, renowned for his probing research and scholarship that packed a huge academic punch. An original and remarkable thinker, his steam fluidised bed drying process – with which he could dry particulate solid materials, alumina and brown coal – won him numerous awards and accolades for the impact it made both locally and internationally. His invention, patented in 1981, not only reduced emissions at power stations by 20 per cent, it also decreased boiler size and operating costs.

Owen came to Monash in 1964 as the foundation professor of chemical engineering, also serving as both associate dean and acting dean of engineering during his 26-year tenure.

His leadership was marked by his ability to make quick decisions and craft a strongly-worded memo, and he transformed the department into a centre of excellence. He lived by the trope that “easy is the path that leads to hell”, and therefore took the opposite route. He wouldn’t rest until he ensured his students had a thorough comprehension of a topic, and wouldn’t hold back when disappointed by their performance.

Owen’s feisty feedback exposed the gaps and faults of any work, starkly revealing its mediocrity. Such demands often produced sweat and tears from his students, but in his eyes it was a small price to pay for acquiring and generating knowledge.

During his first decade at the helm, Owen established thriving research programs, and three undergraduate courses in chemical engineering; 10 of the students he supervised were awarded PhDs, and four of them master’s degrees. Meanwhile, the number of chemical engineering academics in Victoria rose from two to more than 20.

Owen’s research was characterised by original ideas and a strong mathematical approach to experimentation. His interest in fluidisation, a physical phenomenon that causes a solid substance to behave as a fluid, began in 1960. The significance of his work was recognised by the University of Manchester, which awarded him a Doctorate of Science in 1974 for his outstanding contribution on the elucidation of the mechanism of gas and solid mixing in fluidised beds, and by Du Pont, which retained him as a consultant on the design of high-pressure gas-liquid reactors.

Owen Edward Potter was born in Brisbane in August, 1925. With an unwavering determination, he set his course towards excellence from a surprisingly young age. As a student, Owen seemed to move seamlessly from one scholarship grant to the next. On leaving school, he earned a state scholarship to study applied science at the University of Queensland, where he graduated with first-class honours in chemical engineering. He spent the next two years working as a researcher on a training scholarship from CSIRO while studying for a master’s degree in applied sciences, awarded in 1950.

In 1949, he was awarded the Queensland University Foundation Travelling Scholarship to study a second master’s degree in history and philosophy of science at the University of London.

In less than eight years, Owen had successfully completed a bachelor’s degree and two masters’ from renowned educational institutions. His academic campaign, however, wasn’t yet finished. In 1954, he was offered a teaching post in engineering at Manchester University – a role he used to good advantage to complete a PhD by research in chemical engineering. Unable to find a suitable supervisor to oversee his doctoral research, he directed it himself.

Owen returned to Australia in 1960, as a reader in chemical engineering at the University of Melbourne, soon after assuming concurrently the role of head of the Department of Chemical Engineering at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT).

Not surprisingly Owen won numerous awards during his lifetime, including the ICI Award for Innovation in Drying (1992), and the Kernot Medal of the University of Melbourne (1993). He was awarded the Centenary Medal in 2003, and in 2013 he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for significant service to chemical engineering, as well as to the Catholic Church.

In addition to his role at Monash, Owen was co-founder and chair of the Victorian Branch of the Institution of Chemical Engineers (ICE), from 1965-67 and 1975-76; secretary/treasurer (1961-65) and chair (1984-86) of the Australian National Committee of the ICE; chair of the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria (1980-89), and fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences, as well as of Engineers Australia, the Institution of Chemical Engineers, and the Royal Australian Chemical Institute. He was appointed Emeritus Professor in 1991 following his retirement from Monash.

In old age, Owen continued to live as he worked, brushing aside obstacles in his path, believing that fierce advocacy is a critical aspect of true leadership, and that implacable tenacity is sometimes imperative to bring necessary change to long-held but outdated thinking.

Defying serious illness, his energy and probing mind remained undimmed well into his 90s, when he set up and chaired a family-directed company, OEP Cross-Flow Pty Ltd, its mission to commercialise globally the patents for his invention of a gas particle cross-flow contactor.

He argued that his revolutionary vertical and horizontal contactor designs enabled greatly increased efficiency of solid particles or liquid droplets interacting with gas streams in industrial processes across multiple industry sectors. Such high-efficiency mass and heat transfer and catalytic reactions would, he argued, lead to a global carbon footprint reduction.

In his spare time, he enjoyed studying Latin, going camping with his large family, sailing, and downing a cold beer.

Owen married Julia (Julie) Hanlon in 1952. She died in 2010, and he’s survived by seven of their eight children. If the safest road to hell is indeed the gradual, easy one, then Owen Potter must surely have found himself at the gates of heaven.

Owen Potter died on 22 June 2020.

Edited version of article published in The Insider, 25 June 2020.