Vladimir Nikolaevich Ipatieff was born on November 21, 1867 in Moscow, Russia. Ipatieff spent his early years studying for a military career. At age 11, after two years of regular gymnasium, he enrolled at the Third Moscow Military Gymnasium. Although he excelled in math generally his grades were poor until he reached the sixth class at age fourteen. After graduation, at sixteen he went to the Alexander Military School in Moscow when he failed to be admitted to the Mikhail Artillery School in St. Petersberg. He worked hard to achieve grades that led his class and in 1886 he transferred to the Mikhail Artillery School. He graduated in 1887 and was commissioned a lieutenant, using a portion of the money given to him by the government and his father to set up a chemistry laboratory in his home.
He began teaching chemistry at the artillery academy and working toward a doctorate, which he obtained from St. Petersberg University in 1906. He began teaching at the university in 1906 as a lecturer and remained until 1916. During World War I he served as the director of the Commission for Preparation of Explosives and Chair of the Chemical Committee. Because he was uninterested in politics he was asked, after the revolution, to remain in charge and help convert the wartime chemical industry to a peacetime industry. In 1930, at the age of 64, taking his wife with him, he left the Soviet Union to go to a meeting in Berlin. He never returned. Initially he split his time between the United States and Berlin, but eventually settled in the United States.
Ipatieff's research interests were studying the effects of high pressures and catalysts on hydrocarbons. In 1927 he founded the High Pressure Institute, where he and his students studied the effect of inorganic molecules (catalysts) on organic compounds at high pressures and temperatures. To perform these studies Ipatieff developed a bomb shaped steel case that could withstand high pressures, called an Ipatieff bomb. Catalysts are compounds that when added to a chemical reaction lower the activation energy necessary for the reaction to happen, thus speed the reaction. Inorganic (non-carbon containing) compounds are often used as catalysts in organic (carbon containing) chemistry. One example of a catalytic reaction discovered by Ipatieff is the preparation of high-octane fuels by the catalytic conversion of paraffin. The high octane fuels that were produced were used by the British Air Force during World War II, and allowed British airplanes to go faster than German planes.
After moving to the United States Ipatieff obtained a lecturer position at Northwestern University and worked for the Universal Oil Products Company. Initially the Soviet Union tried to encourage Ipatieff to return, but he had no desire to return. Eventually he was denounced by the Soviet Union (and even by his own son, who was a chemistry teacher) and had his citizenship revoked. He was also expelled from the Russian Academy of Science. He became a U. S. citizen in 1937 and was elected the National Academy of Science in 1939. Throughout his time in the U.S. he remained active in his research, publishing almost 160 papers between 1933 and 1954, and with his name on more than 200 patents.
Ipatieff died on November 29, 1952.
McDermott, Wm. F.; "Faster than Bullets"; The Rotarian (1951) Vol. 58 No. 1:29-31, 56
Schmerling, Lewis; "Vladimir Nikolaevich Ipatieff: 1867-1952"; in Biographical Memiors Vol. 57; National Academy Press; 1975