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Dick Pefley

Dick Pefley:
Alternative Energy Pioneer

In the midst of the 1970s fuel crisis, the School of Engineering was privileged to have a pioneer in the field of alternative energy teaching classes and performing landmark research at Santa Clara.

Dick Pefley joined the faculty of the School of Engineering in 1951 as chair of the mechanical engineering department and immediately became a favorite among students and colleagues alike. His keen interest in solar energy, artificial lung development, heat transfer, and gas dynamics of the Polaris missile led to numerous scholarly publications, but it was his exploration of alternative fuels in the early 1970s that made him a leading authority in the field, both in the United States and around the world.

Pefley was passionate about finding alternatives for reducing dependence on foreign oil and was a proponent of alcohol-based fuel "not just because it is clean-burning, but because it can be produced by every country, even underdeveloped countries, since it can be developed from so many sources" such as sugar cane, natural gas, and coal, he said.

From 1969 to 1980, Pefley received millions of dollars in funding from the U.S. Post Office and the California Energy Commission for alcohol car test programs, converting fleets of vehicles to use alcohol fuels. In 1980 he founded the Methanol Research Center where he led and inspired a loyal following of "alcoholics" who were as committed to alternative fuels as he, even as funding dissipated in the wake of falling oil prices. Pefley's words, spoken in 1982, ring prophetic today: "We are making a terrible mistake by directing so many dollars into destructive weaponry when they could be going into constructive weaponry—like energy."

Pefley was named ASME Fellow, testified before Congressional subcommittees, and was one of three recipients of the first SCU President's Special Recognition Award, honoring superior teaching, publication, and special service to the University and the community. Upon his retirement from SCU, one of his students, David Oliver '61, wrote that he was a man of "brilliance and exciting energy. [He] blessed a generation of engineers in a time of both exhilarating and desperate technical advances. [He was] a technical man par excellence [sic]. But the technical did not detract or blind him to the wider issues of moral seriousness."

When Pefley died in 2009, Paul S. Russell '78, who studied under the revered professor at SCU and worked with him later at Pefley's company, Alcohol Energy Systems, remembered his friend this way: "Professor Pefley was an outstanding academic, a visionary, a pioneering researcher, and a philosopher. He could engineer superbly, but in the end, his greatest gift to future generations was not the courses he taught, the discoveries he made, or the systems he engineered, but his moral compass. Its cardinal points were knowledge, modesty, justice, and hard work. He was an example to all of us."

Pefley's focus on alternative energy in the 1970s fueled an interest in energy research that has grown and thrived over the ensuing decades with Santa Clara's participation in the U.S. Department of Energy's 2007 and 2009 Solar Decathlon competitions, cutting-edge faculty research in green computing, and a new graduate certificate and master's degree program in Sustainable Energy.