Obituary Owen Edward Potter AM, 1925–2020

Article by Mark Latham FIChemE

Professor Owen Potter and wife Julie at Monash University Chemical Engineering Alumni Dinner, 1990

OWEN Potter was a seminal figure in chemical engineering in Australia. Committed to family, with his wife Julie, he was intimately involved in the loving upbringing of his eight children. His career was punctuated with many recognitions, including award of membership of the Order of Australia in 2013 for his significant service to chemical engineering and to the Catholic Church. Born in Brisbane, Owen graduated with a MAppSc from the University of Queensland in 1948 before an MSc at University College London and six years in Manchester, UK.

He received IChemE’s Arnold Greene Medal in 1984, recognising his significant contribution to the Australian profession. In 1961 he participated in forming the Victorian branch of IChemE, serving first as Secretary/Treasurer and Chair in 1965–1967 and 1975–1976. He chaired the Australian National Committee 1984–1986 and contributed to the education of two IChemE Presidents.

His 1993 the University of Melbourne Kernot Medal acknowledged that “effectively he started chemical engineering education as we know it today in the State of Victoria”. From 1963 until 1990, he was Foundation Chair of Chemical Engineering at Monash University. But he had also established the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Melbourne (1960) from almost nothing whilst simultaneously Head at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. Championing intellectual rigour, Owen was one of Australia’s first teachers to embrace Bird, Stewart and Lightfoot’s Transport Phenomena, and used it to take students beyond conventional empiricism. Comprehending student needs, he sponsored the revered Melbourne University Chemical Engineering Students’ Society. Owen wanted quality outcomes for all his students (and never shirked difficult feedback). The same passion supported Catholic education for more than 20 years, finishing as Chair of the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria in the 1980s. 

His interest in fluidisation began in 1960, after arriving at Melbourne from Manchester, where since 1954, he had been teaching chemical engineering subjects and researching for his 1957 PhD on liquid extraction. (Always a tough judge, Owen related that when unable to find a suitable research supervisor, he directed it himself). Victoria’s riches of brown coal made fluidisation very relevant. The University of Manchester recognised him in 1974, awarding a DSc for his outstanding contribution elucidating the mechanism of gas-solid mixing in fluidised beds. 

In 2008 he was one of 15 recipients of Monash University’s 50th Anniversary Research Awards, acknowledging “path-breaking work in fluidised reactors and drying which continues to make an impact on the development of technology to reduce emissions from brown coal”. During the 1970s Owen developed steam fluidised drying, particularly for dewatering brown coal, patented in 1981 and adopted in East Germany. He bemoaned that the technology was not taken up by Australian industry. Accepting the Chemeca Medal in 1990, he called for change. “We should see to it that Australians know more about processing Australian raw materials than anyone else, and support innovation, particularly in this area. Australian resources do not excuse Australians from resourcefulness”. Such advocacy was typical of Owen’s strong and decisive leadership. Integrity and intellectual honesty counted much more for him than status and power. He explained that his religious beliefs called him to apply knowledge to bring about a just society.

As Emeritus Professor, Owen continued to supervise research students and developed ideas for a breakthrough alternative to fluidisation. His 2013 paper on cross-flow contacting was seminal and inspired a 2019 final-year undergraduate research project using computational fluid dynamics that he co-supervised at Monash.

Owen is survived by five of his six daughters and by his two sons as well as 20 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren. Three of his children are directors of OPXFLO, the business he founded in 2013 (aged 88) to commercialise his patented cross-flow contactor.

Mark Latham FIChemE has been a colleague of Owen with OPXFLO since 2015 and a family friend since 1973.

Article by Mark Latham FIChemE

Recent Editions

Catch up on the latest news, views and jobs from The Chemical Engineer. Below are the four latest issues. View a wider selection of the archive from within the Magazine section of this site.