Campus & Community

Chemistry Professor Donald Stedman dies of lung cancer

Professor Emeritus Donald Stedman — known worldwide for developing trail-blazing technology to gauge vehicle emissions — died of lung cancer in Oregon on April 16.

Stedman taught in DU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry for more than three decades, and his work earned him a range of honors. In 1995 he was named University Lecturer, and four years later, he was designated a John Evans Professor, the highest award the University bestows on faculty members. His efforts were also recognized outside campus, most recently with the prestigious Haagen-Smit Clean Air Award, given annually by the California Air Resources Board. It recognizes significant career accomplishments in the arena of air-quality monitoring and improvement.

Stedman joined the University in 1983 after working as a researcher for Ford Motor Co. and after a 12-year stint at the University of Michigan. At DU, he taught analytical chemistry to undergraduate and graduate students, many of whom joined him and longtime collaborator Gary Bishop in the development of the FEAT (fuel efficiency automobile testing) system. This highly automated system can test up to 10,000 vehicles per day, using a cost-efficient method that surpasses traditional testing stations in identifying polluting automobiles. In recent years, the FEAT system has been expanded to monitor diesel trucks.

“[Stedman] was a pioneer in showing that emissions could be monitored as a car drove past an on-road sensing system. The tests show actual performance under actual on-road driving conditions,” Sandra Eaton, chair of the chemistry department, told the University of Denver Magazine in February 2016.

Stedman considered the FEAT system of particular importance to policy makers because its findings suggest that the greatest public benefit comes not from testing every registered vehicle but from targeting the highest polluting cars.

“To our surprise, our data, federal test data, indeed all the data we could find, showed half the pollution [came] from less than 10 percent of the vehicles. These vehicles we call gross polluters,” he told the University community in 1995, when, as University Lecturer, he explained the science — and just as important, the politics — of vehicular air pollution.

The vehicle emissions project was just one of many passions Stedman pursued at DU. According to Bishop, a senior research engineer in the chemistry department, Stedman was the consummate inventor. In fact, over the course of his career, he amassed a whopping 35 patents.

“He was one of a very few people in the world who was an expert in nickel carbonyl chemistry — he also invented a detector for this that was commercialized,” Bishop says. “This stuff is extremely dangerous and explosive but is used for nickel plating and is produced in atomic fuel rods in power plants where, if not controlled, can cause a major problem.”

His inventions also included a sulfur detector that is still being sold by Hewlett Packard, as well as a detector, also commercialized, for measuring nitric oxide.

In pursuit of data, Stedman was known to take to the field — and even the air. “He actually flew on a commercial airline to gather data about cigarette smoking on flights,” Bishop recalls. “He was most proud of the fact that the committee that he was on successfully banned smoking on commercial flights.”

Stedman retired from DU in 2008, but, as a research professor, continued to mentor students and work in his lab. His colleagues, says Andrei Kutateladze, dean of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, will remember him as a passionate scientist and teacher.

“Donald was a rare example of a true scientist and an inventor: infinitely creative, data-driven, with seemingly unlimited curiosity and imagination,” Kutateladze says. “He was a world-class expert in atmospheric research, always challenging the status quo in science and in politics alike. He had little patience for sacred cows and no trouble criticizing the obsolete approaches of the day. It was always a losing proposition to put him into a well-defined proverbial box.

“This is the best lesson — and legacy — any faculty member can hope to leave behind: Teach new generations of students to think with their own brains. Professor Stedman will be remembered for doing just that.”




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