Having made an undeniable impact in the field of industrial chemistry, Margaret Wu will join the 2020 National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee class in recognition of her invention of a new class of synthetic lubricants.
Leading a Scientific Life
Science has been at the center of Wu’s life from the start. She was born and raised in Taiwan, where her parents had settled as refugees from mainland China, and she and each of her five siblings would pursue careers in STEM. Wu says she is particularly grateful for her mother’s guidance, pointing her in the direction of studying chemical engineering.
Wu earned her bachelor's degree in chemical engineering at the National Taipei University of Technology before coming to the U.S. She then earned her doctorate in physical organic chemistry at the University of Rochester, where she had earned a full scholarship. Here, Wu met many kind and supportive people who helped her through the challenges of graduate studies and living in a new country. She has since described Rochester as a city that “represents the best part of America.”
Having followed her mother’s advice, Wu built a fulfilling career as an industrial chemist, spending most of her time in research labs. In a conversation with NIHF, Wu explained that while many of her colleagues chose to change career paths, she is proud of remaining a dedicated lab chemist. “I really think it’s important for creativity, for progress and for my personal well-being, to work in a lab,” Wu said.
Changing an Industry
Wu joined Mobil in 1977, and by the mid-1980s she discovered a new class of molecule, polyalphaolefin (PAO), for use in synthetic lubricants. Her work demonstrated that the new class of molecule has superior lubricating properties with greater wear prevention and less friction in formulated products, resulting in improved engine performance, oil life and fuel economy, as well as reductions in engine wear and waste oil.
Asked to describe her work with synthetic lubricants, Wu explained, “The new molecule has a very elegant chemical structure. It is put together in a very uniform and regular manner.” With this new chemical composition, Wu’s synthetic lubricants create a much stronger lubrication film in comparison to conventional, petroleum-based lubricants while also offering greater heat resistance, oxidative stability and overall efficiency.
“That’s the beauty of Mother Nature,” Wu said while describing the development of new molecular structures. “When you do something different – you change a molecule, you change this chemical structure – you will get a brand-new property.” Synthetic lubricant products based on Wu’s work are now used in a wide array of applications, from passenger car engines to wind turbines and other industrial machines.
Not only has Wu significantly advanced lubricant products, but she has also broken new ground as one of the first women to work in her field. When she began her career at Mobil, Wu found that she was one of just three women chemists holding doctorates at the company. However, she noted that over time, the company hired more women scientists at all levels, making progress toward a more inclusive and friendly workforce.
When Wu retired from ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Co. in 2009, she held the title of senior scientific adviser, which is the highest technical rank in the company, and she was the first woman to achieve this rank. She continued as emeritus and consultant until 2016. Over the course of her career, Wu earned over 100 issued U.S. patents.
Since her retirement, in addition to gardening and spending time with her granddaughter, Wu has enjoyed culinary experimentation, which she says is not so far removed from her life’s work in an industrial lab. “All the ingredients, all the meat and vegetables, the spice, the soy sauce, the salt and pepper — they are all chemicals. If you think about it, they interact with each other in tremendously complicated chemical reactions. They are the other side of the science from Mother Nature.”
Margaret Wu will be formally Inducted along with our entire class of 2020 NIHF Inductees on May 7, 2020, at the 48th Annual NIHF Induction Ceremony. We invite you to find more blogs introducing our inspiring 2020 Inductees at invent.org.