Passion for Energy Issues Drives Gift To Support Research

Author: Linda Thomas Terhune
Fred Fehsenfeld Sr. has a favorite topic: Energy. It was his professional focus for nearly 50 years and in his retirement remains a personal preoccupation related to a great concern for securing the nation’s energy future.

Fred Fehsenfeld SrStart a conversation with this mechanical engineering alumnus and you’re likely to learn a few things about underground coal gasification, transportation efficiency, and shale gas, among other topics.

“I’ve spent a good part of my life with my nose stuck in technical manuals catching up on new information, brushing up on technical details,” Fehsenfeld says. “I think if you really want to get ahead, you must dedicate yourself to improving your knowledge.”

It is no surprise, then, that Fehsenfeld is keenly interested in Purdue’s efforts in energy research — so much so that he created the Purdue Energy Fund to support initiatives in the energy area. The funds are earmarked for projects that are near-term with the potential for commercialization in a five-year window and have applications that can both be realized and have impact within the state of Indiana.

Fehsenfeld (BSME ’48, HDR ’91) grew up in Indianapolis, where his father owned a petroleum marketing company. He began his career as a process engineer at Rock Island Refining Corp., then joined the family business. Over time, the company grew to its current 29 companies now under the umbrella of The Heritage Group, which includes enterprises involved in oil refining, oil and natural gas production, chemical manufacturing, environmental services, and bridge and highway construction.

In 1972, as The Heritage Group grew, Fehsenfeld — an angler and avowed lover of the outdoors — turned his focus on the environment with the creation of Heritage Environmental Services, whose executives now sit on the advisory board of the Purdue Energy Fund. The company’s Heritage Research Center has focused on issues such as creating pig iron and zinc oxide from electric arc furnace dust, the largest hazardous waste produce in the nation.

Additionally, the center is working with the Chinese government to develop asphalt roads that can withstand the weight of 160,000-pound trucks; the limit in the United States is 80,000 pounds per load. In an attempt to effect similar energy-saving changes in the United States, Fehsenfeld and his brothers financed a Purdue study in 2003 on a new national transportation system (details can be found at

Rakesh Agrawal, the Winthrop E. Stone Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering, is among the Purdue researchers who have benefitted from Fehsenfeld’s generosity. Agrawal’s work on converting biomass to liquid fuel is funded by a large grant from the Department of Energy; and a substantial matching fund from Fehsenfeld was a key enabler.

“It is fortunate for the country to have people like Fred Fehsenfeld who really are thinking of our future,” Agrawal says. “After so many of his life accomplishments, he still has a passion for energy that is so vital for the future of our country, and that is what distinguishes him from everyone else.”