Rane Curl, professor emeritus of chemical engineering, died May 12. His colleagues and students will remember his clear enunciation of the consistently high standards of performance expected in his classes and in graduate research.

Photo of Rane Curl
Rane Curl

“His intellectual honesty was impressive — he would quickly serve me a wake-up call by pinpointing a weak spot in one of my expositions,” says Curl’s colleague of nearly 40 years, James Wilkes, professor emeritus of chemical engineering. “He carried this trait into his classroom teaching, and his students admired him for that.

“In 1987, I succeeded him in developing our first undergraduate teaching lab and had no hesitation in retaining his uncertainty analysis program that could give a good idea of what faith could (or could not) be placed in a computed result that depended on a number of measured experimental inputs.”

During his tenure in the Department of Chemical Engineering, Curl championed safety. He established and chaired the department’s Safety Committee and advocated for introducing environmental and safety concerns into the curriculum.

In the 1980s, Curl redesigned the senior laboratory course, ChE 460, including creating “Brown Industries” in honor of the late George Granger Brown, and shifting the emphasis on simulating — and solving — real-world problems in the experiments, in addition to elevating laboratory safety and environmental protection concerns within the course.

“Rane changed the concept of our undergraduate student senior laboratory by running the course as a simulated industrial laboratory, where the students function as professionals at the company,” says another longtime colleague, Scott Fogler, Ame and Catherine Vennema Professor of Chemical Engineering and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor. 

Pablo LaValle, former manager of the department’s undergraduate labs, says Curl demanded a good deal from his students because he wanted them to have an excellent grasp of chemical engineering processes before they entered their professions.

“His charge to the students at the beginning of the term was: ‘This is the process I need completed. Determine the most efficient conditions,’” says LaValle. “Along the way, he asked many questions but did not provide answers to guide the students. He would tell them, ‘I am the plant manager and I’m paying you to solve my problem!’”

Curl received his Bachelor of Science and Doctor of Science degrees in chemical engineering in 1951 and 1955, respectively, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Following employment by the Shell Development Corp. and Technische Hogeschool Eindhoven in the Netherlands, he joined the University of Michigan in 1964 as associate professor of chemical engineering.

While at MIT, Curl discovered caves and karst, an interest that developed into a lifelong passion, combining exploration, scientific endeavor and organizational leadership. He applied principles of chemical engineering and mathematics, including the then new study of fractals, to geologic processes to offer explanation of how cave passages formed and cave minerals deposited. He was a force in the development of the National Speleological Society as a true professional organization, serving as its president and in other administrative positions.

Curl is survived by his wife, Alice Rolfes-Curl; children Stefan Curl (Laura Evenson), Jocelyn Boesch (Russ Boesch), and Vittoria Curl; and two grandchildren.

— Submitted by the Department of Chemical Engineering