Keith E. Gubbins was born in Southampton, England, and spent most of his childhood there. He began his academic training at Queen Mary College in the University of London, where he received his BSc in Chemistry with First Class honours in 1958. He went on to receive his PhD degree in Chemical Engineering from King's College at the University of London in 1962. The topic of his doctoral research, which was largely experimental, was the kinetics of reactions in fluidised beds. He then joined the University of Florida in Gainesville as a postdoctoral fellow to work on the mass transport of gases in fuel cells with Robert D. Walker. In 1964 he became an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Florida, and then moved rapidly through the ranks to become a full professor in 1972. On joining the Florida faculty, he was asked to teach thermodynamics, and this led to his interest in statistical mechanics of fluids. Much of his early interest in statistical mechanics was focused on the diffusion and solubility of gases in electrolyte solutions. While at University of Florida he co-authored, with the late Tim Reed, Applied Statistical Mechanics (McGraw-Hill, 1973), the first such text aimed at practical applications to fluids, with a particular orientation towards chemical engineering. In 1973 very few chemical engineers were aware of the potential of statistical mechanics in their field. It was also during his time at Florida that he began a long and very productive collaboration with Chris Gray and Peter Egelstaff at the University of Guelph in Canada. This began as a result of a sabbatical leave spent with Egelstaff, the leading expert in neutron scattering from liquids, a topic Keith was eager to become familiar with.
In 1976 he moved to Cornell University as the Thomas R. Briggs Professor of Engineering, where he spent the next 22 years, serving 7 years as Director of the School of Chemical Engineering there (1983–1990). At Cornell he was a member of the Graduate Fields of Chemistry, Applied Physics, Applied Mathematics and History of Science, in addition to Engineering. During his period as Director he led a successful effort to raise funds for a renovation of all of the teaching and research laboratories, and was responsible for hiring seven new faculty members. While at Cornell, Keith established a style of conducting research that has become synonymous with him. Using the resources of Cornell and those of various funding agencies he built a vibrant international collaborative laboratory in statistical mechanics and molecular modelling, to which he welcomed many international visiting scientists. It was while at Cornell that he teamed up with a fellow faculty member, William ('Bill') B. Streett, an internationally renowned expert in high-pressure phase equilibria and molecular simulation of fluids. It was from Bill that he learned about the potential of molecular simulation methods. Together they formed a successful joint program involving experimental and theoretical studies of liquid mixtures.
In 1998 he moved to North Carolina State University as the W.H. Clark Distinguished University Professor.
Following his largely experimental studies in his doctoral and postdoctoral research, his interests turned increasingly to the application of statistical mechanics to problems in chemical engineering and applied physics. Much of chemical engineering involves the handling and processing of dense fluids and liquids, so that a knowledge of their thermodynamic and transport behaviour is essential to design of process equipment. It was to these areas that he addressed himself, and he has been largely responsible for the introduction of statistical mechanics and atomistic simulation methods (Monte Carlo and molecular dynamics) into chemical engineering. His research has focused on the development of reliable predictive methods based in statistical mechanics for phase and chemical equilibria for mixtures; equations of state for complex fluid mixtures, particularly those involving associating liquids and polymers; thermodynamics, transport in interfaces, including small droplets, gas-liquid and liquid-liquid interfaces and nano-porous media; prediction of viscosity, diffusion coefficients, and thermal conductivities; natural gas storage in porous media.
Among his most significant contributions are the development of much improved equations of state for complex fluids and fluid mixtures, based on statistical mechanical perturbation theory. During the 1960s Barker, Henderson and others had developed a successful perturbation theory for liquids composed of spherical molecules. While this was a milestone, such simple liquids play very almost no role in chemical engineering processes, which involve mixtures containing molecules that are non-spherical, polar, associating and so on. In 1972 Keith, together with Chris Gray of Guelph, proposed a perturbation theory for liquids of non-spherical molecules, and then applied it to more complex mixtures, including polar liquids. This led to many joint papers over the coming decade in which the theory was tested and successfully applied to a wide range of liquid mixtures. However, there still remained an important limitation, the failure of these existing theories to describe molecular association due to strongly attractive forces, such as hydrogen bonding. In the late 1980s Michael Wertheim developed a highly successful theory for dense fluids in which the molecules exhibited association to form complexing, through hydrogen-bonding, charge transfer and other mechanisms. In 1989 Keith, together with co-workers Walter Chapman, George Jackson and Mac Radosz, proposed an equation of state, which they termed statistical associating fluid theory (SAFT), that combined the merits of Werheim's associating liquid theory with a perturbation treatment that described the non-polar interactions. The theory proved to be both accurate and highly versatile, encompassing mixtures containing non-polar, associating and chain molecules, including polymers. Unlike most existing equations of state at that time, SAFT has a firm foundation in statistical mechanics, and works well for strongly associated liquids. It was quickly embraced by many researchers and industries, who went on to apply it to polymers, liquid crystals, electrolytes, surfactant solutions and interfaces. The SAFT equation is now widely used worldwide, in both industry and academia, and has become the standard approach in describing complex mixtures.
He was among the first to realise and exploit the power of statistical mechanical treatments for the adsorption of gases and liquids in nano-porous materials (such as carbons, silicas and metal-organic framework materials). Such adsorption processes are central to many separation and purification processes, as well as catalysis. The density functional theory method developed by Gubbins and coworkers is now universally used in analysing adsorption isotherms to calculate pore size distributions and porosity of nano-porous materials. More recently he has made major contributions to the characterisation of amorphous porous materials through application of statistical mechanical methods, and to the understanding of diffusion processes and chemical reactions in these materials.
Keith is the author or co-author of approximately 500 research publications in refereed scientific journals. These, together with his 4 books, have received more than 36,000 citations.
He has received numerous awards for his research. Among the most notable are a Guggenheim Fellowship (1986–87, Oxford University); Fulbright Senior Scholar (1993–94, Australian National University); Senior Visiting Fellow (SERC Award, UK, Oxford University 1986–87 and Imperial College London 1994); election to the National Academy of Engineering (1989); American Institute of Chemical Engineers (Alpha Chi Sigma Research Award, 1986; William H. Walker Award for distinguished research, 2000; Fellow 2003); American Chemical Society (Joel H. Hildebrand Award for research on liquids); Chercheur de Haute Niveau (French Ministry of Education, 2001); Royal Society (London) Visiting Professor, University of Hong Kong, 2007; named one of the "One Hundred Engineers of the Modern Era (Second World War onwards)" for significant contributions to the profession and society by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, 2008; Distinguished Visiting Fellow, Royal Academy of Engineering (London), 2009; named Honorary Professor, Nanjing University of Technology, China, 2009; Rossini Lecture Award, International Association for Chemical Thermodynamics, International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry, 2012; FOMMS (Foundations of Molecular Modeling and Simulation) Medal 2012, to honour "profound and lasting contribution by one or more individuals to the development of computational methods and their application to the field of molecular-based modeling and simulation"; Lennard-Jones Prize and Lectureship, Royal Society of Chemistry, London, 2013 (recognising distinguished contributions to statistical mechanics). In addition he has won five awards for undergraduate teaching, from the University of Florida and Cornell University. He served as Delegate to the Press for Oxford University Press (1991–2007), and is the founder and Editor of the OUP book series Topics in Chemical Engineering.
In addition he has won five awards for undergraduate teaching, from the University of Florida and Cornell University. He served as Delegate to the Press for Oxford University Press (1991–2007), and is the founder and Editor of the OUP book series Topics in Chemical Engineering.
He has been the supervisor of 47 PhD students and 53 postdoctoral associates, of whom 56 now hold faculty positions in the United States, Europe (Czech Republic, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Spain, UK), Asia (China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Singapore) and Australia.