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Atul Sheth Retiring at Space Institution After 22 Years as Professor, Researcher

Atul C. Sheth of Tullahoma is ending a 22-year career as a professor of chemical engineering at The University of Tennessee Space Institute.

Bringing with him an outstanding academic record that started in high school and continued through his studies in college and at two universities, Sheth joined UTSI on September 1, 1984, and began teaching as an associate professor and member of the Energy Conversion Program. He will retire Dec. 31 as an emeritus professor.

Donald C. Daniel, UT associate vice president and chief operating officer of UTSI, congratulated Sheth on his students, research and patents during a reception held for the professor at UTSI on Dec. 8.

George Garrison, retired professor and associate for most of Sheth’s tenure, also commended him during the reception and joined Daniel in presenting him gifts. Sheth assured the gathering that he was not severing his ties with UTSI. Not only will he continue his involvement in carbon fiber research, he said, but he also has a student yet to complete graduate work.

Sheth was granted tenure in August 1988 and in July 1993 was promoted to full professor.

Born in Bombay, India, Sheth graduated first in a class of 80 from the Modern High School. In 1958, he was ranked first among 300 graduates at Elphinstone College, where he had received the Anil P. Desai prize. In 1964, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering from Bombay University’s Department of Chemical Technology, ranking fifth out of 60 graduates. He began his studies there in 1960 when he received the M.C. Ghia Scholarship.

Sheth flew to the United States in February 1967, spent two days in Baltimore visiting a relative, then entered Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

“I had eight dollars in my pocket and no winter protection when I got there, and it was just a week after the famous ’67 snow blizzard in Chicago,” Sheth says with a chuckle. His wife Sheila had stayed with his parents in Bombay while he continued his education.

The young student was accustomed to temperatures in the 60’s in Bombay, and he had no place to stay in Evanston. After spending a couple of nights in the YMCA, he found a rooming house with rooms for $50 a month. He had a $1,500 grant for his college expenses, but it was still in India. He advised the owner of the house to contact the bank regarding the grant and eventually got settled in.

In June 1973, Sheth graduated from Northwestern University with a master’s and Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering. At Northwestern, he was awarded the Murphee Fellowship. In Bombay, Sheth had done private tutoring in calculus, and as a teaching assistant at Northwestern, he taught fluid mechanics, thermal pollution, and polymer chemistry.

During his years at UTSI, Sheth was engaged in various research, including recently being on the carbon research team led by Ahmad Vakili. Perhaps one of his most unusual research projects was his research that led to his discovery of a method of turning chicken litter into profits for poultry farmers. His research, proving that steam gasification of chicken manure creates energy in the form of methane and hydrogen-rich gas, has potential benefit for farmers while also offering a cheap and environmentally safe way of producing power.

Sheth also has been active in recent years in cooperative teaching ventures with other campuses including sharing “distant education” courses with students at Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville.

The professor has only been back to his native land twice; the last time was in 1982. “You don’t look back,” he says. “There is an ending to whatever you start.”

There also are beginnings. One awaits Dr. and Mrs. Sheth as they move to Fairfield, Calif.. Their two daughters are Archana Sheth and Roma, both graduates of Tullahoma High School and of UT Knoxville. Roma, her husband Jeff McCaig (a graduate of UTSI and UT Knoxville) and their son Kieran live in Pleasant Hill, Calif., 30 miles from the Sheths’ new home. Archana lives in Sandpoint, Idaho.

Since 2004, the Great Point Energy of Cambridge, Mass., is carrying out related research and development activities at the pilot plant scale to commercialize “Blue Gas” (synthetic natural gas) production from coal, based on Sheth’s research in catalytic coal gasifications.

Sheth has been on the Scientific Advisory Board since 2004 and very much involved in seeing that his research can offer an attractive and economically visible option to solve the nation’s energy problem.

In California, Sheth will work as an adjunct faculty member with the Chemical Engineering Department of the University of California at Davis. He also is continuing to be involved with the carbon fiber research at UTSI.

Avid travelers, the Sheths plan to visit Panama soon and Antarctica in 2008.