August 2008

Automation Founders Circle

EDITOR'S NOTE: ISA continues its tradition of honoring leaders throughout the automation industry by presenting the Automation Founders Circle awards. This year's recipients are Hans Baumann and Margaret Walker with the ISA Honorary Member award, the highest honor bestowed by the society; Tom Thomas with the Arnold O. Beckman Founder Award; Dr. Robert Moore with the Albert F. Sperry Founder Award; and F. Gregway Shinskey with ISA's 2008 Life Achievement Award. Wake Forest, N.C.-based freelance writer Bob Felton wrote all five of the profiles.

Tom Thomas wins Beckman Award for sulfur measurement technology

"It works well, simplifies analysis, and was challenging to work on." -Thomas

Sulfur oxide emissions that accompany the combustion of fossil fuels are a major cause of air pollution and directly threaten human health. The World Bank said exposure to sulfur concentrations of just 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter, for as little as 10 minutes, may be harmful. 

One of the obvious solutions is to sharply reduce the sulfur content of fuels, and so the press is on worldwide to cut sulfur emissions to their rock-bottom level. In 2000, a survey conducted by the petroleum industry found the average sulfur content of gasoline was roughly 350 ppm, ranging in some cases up to 500 ppm.  The levels in diesel fuel are even higher.  Making matters worse, the availability of sweet, low-sulfur crude is declining even as regulations tighten.

But more stringent standards require high measurement reliability and frequent sampling, introducing unwelcome costs and delays in a fiercely competitive marketplace.  Tom Thomas' answer was the gas chromatograph (GC) with a flame photometric detector.

Created to recognize "a significant technological contribution to the conception and implementation of a new principle of instrument design, development or application," this year's winner of the Arnold O. Beckman Founder Award is ABB's Thomas, "for innovative developments and continuous improvements of process analyzers utilized for online analysis," especially the once time-consuming  sulfur content of fuels.

The award is given in honor of Dr. Arnold O. Beckman, founder of Beckman Instruments (now known as Beckman Coulter, Inc., Fullerton, Calif.). Beckman, who served as ISA President in 1952, was an internationally recognized scientist, educator, executive, humanitarian, and civic leader. He died in 2004 at the age of 104.

Thomas' tool captures a very small sample of the fuel, vaporizes it, and then oxidizes it.  The resulting CO2 and SO2 separate, the CO2 is discarded, and the remaining SO2 is burned.  The concentration of sulfur is determined by measurement of the emitted light.

The method is two to five times more reproducible than others, and reliable at concentrations lower than 10 ppm.  Further, a measurement requires only 5 to 6 minutes, where the preceding technology could require up to 20 minutes. 

The technology helps assure fuel exhaust meets EPA guidelines for sulfur content, minimizing SO2 emissions and sulfur-caused damage to catalytic converters.  Further, it undergirds ASTM D-7041, Standard Test Method for Determination of Total Sulfur in Light Hydrocarbons, Motor Fuels, and Oils by Online Gas Chromatography with Flame Photometric Detection.

More than 125 companies throughout the world use the technology.


Thomas joined the Bendix company in 1959 and, following a long series of company acquisitions and divestments, found himself working for ABB in Lewisburg, W.V., in 1965.  He has been there ever since, raising three children with his wife of 42 years, Sharon, and anticipates the birth of a second grandchild this month.

Most of Thomas' career has been devoted to the perfection of the gas chromatograph.  In addition to the sulfur measurement advance, he is responsible for:

  • Circuit designs for the first solid state online GC controller
  • The pre-amp circuit for the first on-line flame photometric detector for sulfur analysis
  • The temperature control circuit for the first temperature programmed online GC
  • The circuits for the first fully digital IR and UV process photometer
  • Digital/analog circuit designs for the first electronic pressure control online GC
  • Electrical, mechanical, and analytical designs on the first online "fast GC"
  • Electrical and mechanical designs for the first online super fluid critical (SFC) GC
  • Sulfur addition module for improving low range sulfur linearity in the first online sulfur-in-fuel-gas GC.

Thomas is the co-inventor of three patents, two of them related to the gas chromatograph, and the third is the personal sampling pump, a device a person can wear to collect a sample of atmospheric pollutants to which the wearer might be exposed.

Thomas presented the GC technology at an ISA-sponsored symposium in April 2000, in the paper Fast Process Gas Chromatography.

Strong career influence

Though Thomas has spent his career in Lewisburg, a long line of engineers have worked under him and gone on to other companies, but remember him with high regard.

"I started working for Tom in 1975 as an engineering co-op student," said David Campbell, a patent engineer with the law firm of Withrow & Terranova, in Cary, NC. "Through Tom's teachings, leadership, and guidance, I have grown as an engineer and as a scientist. Tom taught me how to think critically and in an organized manner. He was my first mentor, and I am very grateful for his influence in my life. At Process Analytics, Tom often served as the proverbial highest technical court in the company. He was consulted when no one else could solve a particular problem. Often, his keen insight and technical prowess led to a solution. His knowledge and experience bases are both broad and deep. He was always a pleasure to work with and I am proud to have been member of his team."

"During my time at ABB Analytical, I found Tom to be one of the cleverest scientists I've ever met," said John Crandall, general manager at Falcon Analytical Systems & Technology. "His involvement with process analyzers spans decades and many, many products used by the global hydrocarbon processing industry. … Whether for gas chromatography, UV/Vis/NIR/IR photometry, mass spectrometry, or physical property analyzers, Tom was always available with creativity from concept right through initial production and even field diagnostic issues. His native technical capabilities proved to be second to none in my experience."

Outside the office

Everybody needs a change of scenery from time to time, and Thomas gets his by getting airborne.

He was at one time a certified flight instructor, and he holds a commercial pilot license for single and multiengine airplanes.  He has flown charter flights throughout the U.S., once landing a King Air 100 turboprop at wildly busy Washington National Airport.  "Fortunately," he remarks, "the controllers knew what they were doing."