Robert Sommerlad, of Gurnee, IL, has thought a lot about the challenges of power generation since he completed his bachelor’s in mechanical engineering at Newark College of Engineering in 1960. He’s built a distinguished career at the leading edge of power-plant technologies needed to produce the electricity that sustains virtually every aspect of modern life. Sommerlad was the recent recipient of one of six NJIT Alumni Achievement Awards.Sommerlad has applied his expertise, enhanced with a 1963 master’s from NCE, to supplying power not only in abundance, but in ways that safeguard the environment as well. He has helped to pioneer techniques for controlling atmospheric emissions of sulfur and nitrogen oxides from power plants, for fueling the generation of electricity with municipal solid waste, and for producing power from coal with the least environmental impact possible. He has also taken on environmentally significant assignments such as advising the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its Alaskan counterpart on disposing of solid waste from the Exxon Valdez oil-spill cleanup using mobile incinerators.
Before college, Sommerlad thought seriously about entering a very different field. “I was really interested in drawing and art, and saw myself working for Walt Disney one day. But I also liked mechanical drawing and decided that engineering would be a good, probably more realistic, backup option, especially if Walt Disney did not hire me.”
Sommerlad first studied engineering at Saint Peter’s College in Jersey City, which had a cooperative program that required taking courses at the University of Detroit. However, his first academic experience outside of New Jersey was not appealing, and he decided to continue his studies closer to home.
“The environment at NCE was very welcoming and simply outstanding with respect to instruction,” Sommerlad says. “It’s where I began to develop a lifelong fascination with thermodynamics, a real love of the subject.”
After graduation, Sommerlad’s knowledge and enthusiasm led to a position with Foster Wheeler, a corporate name synonymous with power-plant technology since the beginning of the 20th century. Sommerlad spent nearly 30 years with Foster Wheeler, advancing from R&D engineer through senior management posts with responsibility for a wide range of initiatives involving combustion, energy recovery, air pollution control and environmental services.
Subsequent to Foster Wheeler, Sommerlad worked with organizations that include the Energy and Environmental Research Corporation, Midwest Research Institute, Research-Cottrell Companies, Gas Research Institute, GE Energy and Environmental Research Corporation, and GE Energy Services. A Professional Engineer registered in New Jersey and a Board Certified Environmental Engineer with the American Academy of Environmental Engineers, he is now the principal of his own consulting practice.
In 2010, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers recognized Sommerlad with a Pioneer Award for his professional achievements in thermal-treatment technologies and service to the society. An ASME Life Fellow, he has served on many of the society’s committees in various capacities, among them as an officer and chairman.
Although he did not become a Walt Disney artist, Sommerlad does use a term current at the Disney companies that communicates the essence of his approach to technological innovation. It’s “imagineering,” a succinct expression of the idea that creative thinking can yield a solution for more than an immediate challenge.
A case in point is the project where an oil refinery was to be built atop a pipeline in the Arizona desert. Sommerlad championed adding a central-receiver solar energy system that could meet most of the new refinery’s energy requirements. Not only did he convince the plant owners to embrace the concept, he also persuaded the Arizona Solar Energy Agency to co-fund the project. “It’s a matter of looking at a concept from all angles,” Sommerlad says, “which can produce unexpected benefits — imagineering!”