The Department of Chemical Engineering at IIT Kanpur has the reputation of being ranked among the nation’s top schools in chemical engineering. The department’s preeminence in the country owes a great deal to the pioneering efforts of the faculty in the early formative years. The department was one among the first five engineering departments established at IIT Kanpur, when the institute was started in 1960. It is widely acknowledged that we continue to have the same stringent requirements for hiring faculty as we have for selecting students—a necessary and, we dare say, sufficient condition for breeding excellence.

Aside from the quest to excel in research, a hallmark of our department has been its emphasis on quality education, not only for our own students, but for others as well through the numerous textbooks written by our faculty. A whole generation of students in this country have studied and benefitted from these textbooks. Indeed, several of these books have received international acclaim. Professor Charles E. Dryden from the Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, one of our consortium Universities in the US, spent two years (1963-65) in the department and wrote the classic text Outlines of Chemical Technology (Affiliated East-West Press, New Delhi, 1965), now running in its third edition. C. V. Seshadri and S. V. Patankar co-authored Elements of Fluid Mechanics (Prentice Hall of India, New Delhi, 1971), which was the preferred textbook in India for over a decade (and is still used in its photocopy reincarnation!).

In the first decade of its existence, the emphasis in the department was on developing the undergraduate curriculum and laboratories. New concepts were brought in, for example, emphasis on engineering science and humanities, letter grade system, course-wise promotion, low number of contact hours, etc. In addition, new academic systems and culture were put in place. These include transparency of operation, complete absence of hierarchy, rotation of administrative positions, sharing of academic administration by representatives of all stakeholders, acute sensitivity to students’ aspirations, etc. All these are essential for academic excellence. These initiatives paralleled similar developments across the Institute. The excitement was infectious, and as our founder Director, Professor P. K. Kelkar said when he was reminiscing the early years in his convocation address in 1981, the ‘spirit of IIT Kanpur’ permeated the entire system. Several of these innovations slowly diffused around the nation. For a variety of reasons, however, the average residence time of faculty during these early, institute-building years, was small, about 4 – 6 years, and this was not conducive for the establishment of viable long-term research programs.

The mid 1970s brought a certain amount of stability to the department, with several faculty spending their entire career doing research, adding continuously to knowledge and establishing themselves as peers across the world. Several prestigious awards and honors from various scientific societies and professional bodies have been bestowed ever since. Professor R. D. Srivastava was the first to be honored with the Herdillia award (1980) of the Indian Institute of Chemical Engineers for excellence in fundamental research in Chemical Engineering. He was soon (1983) elected to the Fellowship of the National Academy of Sciences, India. Awards followed at regular intervals since then, with the S. S. Bhatnagar prize in 2002 to Professor Ashutosh Sharma being the icing on the cake.

As our department slowly emerged on the scene, it became the role model for others. Simultaneously, our alumni made their impact around the globe in various areas of endeavor, including in the Silicon Valley. The latter possibly has much to do with IIT Kanpur being the first institute in the country to get the first-generation IBM 1620 in 1963. Our list of Distinguished Alumnus Awardees, without doubt, reads like a Who’s Who in the world of chemical engineering.

The current faculty comprises of 21 members who excel in diverse areas of research. All our faculty have had experience outside India, including being invited as visiting faculties at universities of repute. In many cases, these visits have led to collaborative projects including co-authoring of books. Our output of research papers in international refereed journals (in addition to numerous papers in conference proceedings) has been about 70 per year for the past two years. This is in addition to many books published by reputed publishers in India and abroad. Our faculty also participates in the continuing education program for university teachers and working professionals. Occasionally, tailor-made courses for specific industries have been offered. The ISTE-IPCL award for the best M. Tech thesis in chemical engineering has been received on many occasions by our graduate students. Currently, there are about 17 highly-trained and motivated technical support-staff members in the department who provide assistance in smooth functioning of the research and teaching activities in the department.

A sobering thought enters our minds as we march on: maintaining excellence is a challenging task. With levels of excellence and expectations ever rising, and new challenges on the horizon, we re-dedicate ourselves to maintaining our standing.