Dr. Thomas B. Reed, Jan. 2, 1926 – Oct. 10, 2018

Thomas B. Reed
Dr. Thomas B. Reed, Inventor, Renewable Energy Expert, MIT Professor

Dr. Thomas B. Reed passed away Oct. 10, 2018. Below is a short obituary of a very long and productive career in science. It was written by his son, Philip Reed

During the first oil embargo in 1973, a director at Lincoln Laboratories asked Dr. Thomas B. Reed to research alcohol as a fuel for cars and trucks. Reed concluded that methanol — made from waste material — was superior to ethanol, which is mainly distilled from corn.

The result was the lead article in the journal Science which created a furor and changed the course of Reed’s career. He was named the Director of Methanol Division, at MIT’s Energy Laboratory, and spent the rest of his life researching and writing about renewable energy.

Reed, a Concord, Mass., resident for many years, died peacefully in Worcester, Mass., on Oct. 10, 2018 after a short illness, at the age of 92.

Born on Jan. 2, 1926 in Chicago, Reed left high school early to enlist in the U. S. Air Force and served until 1945. He graduated from Northwestern University in 1947 with a Bachelor’s degree and earned a PhD in 1952 from University of Minnesota in Physical Chemistry.

His first job was at Shell Oil Company, in Houston, Tex., in the early 1950s, and Reed shared an office with F. King Hubbert, who coined the term “peak oil” predicting that the height of oil production in the U.S. would be 1995. This planted a seed early in Reed’s mind that the world’s resources were limited. That thought was rekindled by the 1973 oil crisis.

Reed promoted methanol as a clean burning fuel, easily produced from many readily available sources, met with strong resistance from the oil companies which retaliated with full-page ads and articles claiming, among other things, that methanol could be poisonous when absorbed through the skin. However, in 1982, Bank of America ran a fleet of 250 cars on methanol and successfully drove over a million miles. And long before the oil crisis, methanol was regarded as an elite fuel by race car drivers because of its high octane (the amount it can be compressed without igniting) and lower burning temperature.

After working for MIT’s Lincoln Laboratories from 1960 to 1975, Reed moved to Golden, CO, where he joined the newly created Solar Energy Research Institute (now the National Renewable Energy Laboratory). In 1996 he traveled around the world studying the uses of renewable energy in India, Africa and South America.

Concerned about deforestation, he saw that families in rural villages built large fires, often indoors with venting through the ceiling, to cook meals, inhaling carbon monoxide in the process. He invented a simple stove that could be made from a coffee can that could boil water by burning a few small sticks. Many versions of his invention were built and used and it was eventually sold as a portable stove for backpackers. He co-wrote “A Wood-Gas Stove for Developing Countries” providing for free, the plans for clean burning wood stoves.

Reed secured twelve patents in the fields of biomass, material science and high temperature technology. He published numerous books and technical papers including articles in Scientific American and Science magazine. In 1965 he was a Senior Research Fellow, in the Department of Inorganic Chemistry at Oxford University. In 1982 and 1993 he received the R&D Magazine “Invention of the Year” Award for the oxygen gasifier and later for “Sea Sweep,” a natural absorbent for oil spills.

Reed, of Barre, MA, is survived by his four children, Katherine Lathrop, of Barre, MA, Philip Reed, of Long Beach, CA, Peter Reed, of Maynard, MA and Kevin Reed of Golden, CO. He is preceded in death by his wife, Vivian Odh.

A memorial service is scheduled for 1:00, November 4th at the Congregational Church in Barre, MA. All are welcome to attend and celebrate Dr. Reed’s life. A private burial will follow the service.

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