August 16, 2007
Vol. 26 No. 20

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    Kleppa’s instruments helped simplify difficult measurements

    Ole Kleppa, who escaped the Nazi occupation of Norway during World War II and later became a leading authority in the study of metals, ceramics and minerals at high temperatures, died Sunday, May 27, at University Medical Center in Lubbock, Texas. He was 87.

    “It is truly one of the most important contributors to physical chemistry in the post-war era that has now passed away,” said Stein Julsrud, adjunct professor of materials technology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.

    Kleppa, a Professor Emeritus in Chemistry and Geophysical Sciences, was a student at the Norwegian Technical University in Trondheim when Germany invaded Norway in 1940. He took part in resistance activities as a student government leader in occupied Norway. “But then it was getting a little bit too dicey, so there was a group of five or six who decided that they needed to get out of Norway,” said Kleppa’s daughter Abbie Lee Kleppa.

    Equipped with buckets and backpacks to disguise themselves as berry-pickers, “they escaped over the mountains to Sweden” more than 50 miles away, she said. After the war, Kleppa learned from his aunt that he crossed the border on the very day that she had received a letter from the Gestapo seeking to question him.

    As a scientist at Chicago, Kleppa developed instruments capable of making difficult laboratory measurements. He is especially known for the Kleppa calorimeter, an instrument that measures tiny amounts of heat as new materials form at high temperatures, said Susan Meschel, a Research Scientist and longtime collaborator at the University’s James Franck Institute.

    Kleppa’s calorimeters determined how much energy is required for a particular compound, alloy or mineral to form. It was not the type of research that grabbed newspaper headlines. Nevertheless, his experimental results were much sought after by scientists and engineers working on marketplace applications and by theoreticians pursuing basic research that is driven purely by curiosity.

    “Even now, I get requests: have you measured this? Please send me the data,” Meschel said.

    Compounds and alloys that Kleppa studied have become widely used in the aviation industry and by physicists developing superconducting materials for advanced technological applications. One compound that Kleppa and Meschel studied, neodymium boride, will serve as a key alloy in a new “super battery.”

    Materials developed in Kleppa’s laboratory and the chemical reactions he documented for a particular compound, also have found use in the nuclear reactor industry. Nuclear engineers are especially interested in controlling the formation of unwanted byproducts to increase the efficiency of nuclear reactors. “If they know the amount of energy that is required to make those byproducts, then they can change the conditions so that only some will form, or maybe none,” Meschel explained.

    Meschel changed research specialties in order to work in Kleppa’s laboratory after receiving her Ph.D. in chemistry from Chicago in 1961.

    “He was a wonderful supervisor, teacher and friend, and I respected him greatly,” Meschel said. “He always stood up for the underdog,” she said, whether it was for a faculty colleague or a student who found themselves in various predicaments.

    Kleppa was born Feb. 4, 1920, in Oslo, Norway. He received his M.S. degree in chemical engineering in 1946 and his Ph.D. in 1956, from the Norwegian Technical University in Trondheim. He married Abbie Joy Stodder on June 26, 1948. Former residents of the Hyde Park neighborhood and Valparaiso, Ind., they moved to Lubbock last October.

    The author of more than 350 scientific publications, Kleppa began working at the University in 1947 as a research fellow and instructor in the Institute for the Study of Metals, now called the James Franck Institute. He rose through the professorial ranks, attaining full professorship in 1962. Kleppa also served as Director of the James Franck Institute from 1971 to 1977. He retired as a Professor Emeritus in 1990.

    Kleppa’s honors include the Huffman Memorial Award of the Calorimetry Conference and the Hume Rothery Award of the Minerals, Metals and Materials Society. In 2000, his colleagues held a symposium in honor of his 80th birthday at the annual Minerals, Metals and Materials Society meeting in Nashville, Tenn.

    Kleppa’s wife, Abbie Joy Kleppa, two daughters, Karen Joy Kleppa, Gol Norway, and Abbie Lee Kleppa, three grandchildren and a sister survive him. Grandson Karl Haraldsson will open a new chapter for the family at Chicago this autumn, when he will enroll as a first-year student. Haraldsson is the son of Abbie Lee Kleppa, a 1977 graduate of the University’s Laboratory Schools, and Haraldur Karlsson, who received his Ph.D. in Geophysical Sciences from the University in 1988.

    The James Franck Institute will have a day of programs commemorating Kleppa’s life and work on Wednesday, Oct. 3. A symposium, titled “The Future of Calorimetry” will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the James Franck Institute, 5640 S. Ellis Ave., Room 480. There will be a memorial service in Bond Chapel at 3 p.m., with a reception following the service. Those who wish to attend should contact Rosemary Garrison, rg-garrison@uchicago.edu.