Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

Official blog of the Lehigh University Chemical Engineers


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Exit Interview w/ ChE Chair Prof. Kothare

CaptureSpring has finally arrived at Lehigh. The sun feels warmer, and the days seemed brighter. There’re only 11 school days left, and pretty soon I’ll graduate from Lehigh Department of Chemical Engineering. The graduation ceremony is set to be May 18th. As a graduating senior, we are offered a chance to chat with the ChE Department Chair, Prof. Kothare, to discuss our overall experience as a ChE. For those of you who remember, Prof. Kothare taught my Process Control class, and more importantly, I benefited a lot from outside the class by applying system controls knowledge onto real life scenarios.

The exit interview is supposedly 15- 20 minutes long, and we can talk about our best ChE moments, favorite ChE stories, as well as suggestions on how to improve the department. It was very thoughtful of the department to provide us this opportunity to make this place better. I feel that my opinions and recommendations are valued here. Through my four years at Lehigh, I have had the pleasure to witness many changes and monumental moments for the ChE Department.

For instance, during the spring of my junior year, the name of the the department was changed from “The Department of Chemical Engineering” to “The Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering”. It served as a prove that the department has the capability to keep up the modern technology demands. It also showed the department is adaptive to any research and development challenges.

I have also seen some great additions to the ChE department faculty. For example, the hiring of Prof. Baltrusaitus has been a tremendous boost to the strong faculty panel. Prof. Baltrusaitis is one of the professors who teaches my Senior Design class, and he has been major help to our group, providing insightful tips and troubleshooting any problems that stand in the way. I think overall I’ll have a lot of say at my exit interview. I’m schedule to go on May 6th, and I look forward to share some of my treasured moments here.


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Checking Gas Leak w/ Soapy Water

Many Unit Operations experiments involve have a supply of Nitrogen from a Nitrogen cylinder. For example, part of the Mass Transfer in Agitated Vessel experiment requires a stream of Nitrogen being send at a pressure of 40 psi. However, when we arrived and check the apparatus, it seemed like the Nitrogen tank was nearly empty. We opened both the cylinder valve and regulator valve all the way, and the pressure is still below the desired pressure. We consulted with the professor and the TA about it and a fresh tank arrived soon.

After strapping the tank to the wall and taking all other safety precautions, we hooked up the nitrogen line with the process line. The line was connected and tightened with a wrench to the best of muscle strength. However, in order to check to make sure there’s no leaking at the joint, my lab partner Tom came up with a custom way to test it. Basically, he made some soapy water solution, and made a few drops on the joint. If there’s a gas leak, soap bubbles will appear. Tom placed a few drops, and no bubbles!

Applying knowledge beyond school is always inspiring to me. We were able to use something that wasn’t written in  the lab manual to promote lab safety. The lab turned out to be the way we wanted, thanks to a few drops of soapy water!


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SASE representing at the Lehigh Int’l Bazaar

The Lehigh annual International Bazaar took place in a grand fashion this past Sunday. Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers (SASE) was very fortunate to take part in this exhibition of cultural diversity on campus. SASE at Lehigh is a cultural and professional organization that a few of my ChE friends and I founded here. SASE focuses on professional development, networking, and leadership opportunities. SASE also develop and support programs that aid Lehigh students from all majors who are actively seeking careers. However, it’s not limited to professional skills; it also promotes Asian culture awareness around campus by having cultural related events.

SASE has been having drastic increases in number of chapters across the country, and SASE at Lehigh was founded last year to become part of this movement.

It was a pleasure to be able to spread cultural diversity across the campus. The Department of Chemical Engineering resembles great cultural diversity as well. From my personal experience, I can tell you that many of my classmate are of multicultural heritage. Such diversity within the department has brought a variety of stimulating ideas for students and faculties to learn from each other.

At the Bazaar, students representing their cultural club prepared food and drinks to sell as a way to spread their culture. SASE made delicious Mochi Ice cream and we were also selling lemon tea. It had a great turn out as the Mochi ice cream was sold out by the end of the event. Students from different countries performed beautiful cultural dances and displayed their flags. The new SASE eboard members have stepped up and took a huge role towards the success of this event. SASE expanding at a tremendous pace, and we hope to continue this growth for next year and the year after!

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Balancing 12 Nails on 1 Nail

Last Friday for my Leadership Development we proudly had Mr. Trey Bianco as our guest speaker. Trey has a very unique personalty and his presentations are quote “like nothing I’ve seen before”. He is the CEO of the company called Smooth-on. For those of you who don’t know (I just learned two days ago), Smooth-on is the world’s best company in mold making and casting materials. Trey showed us a few slides on where smooth-on products were used in the movie industry, and guess what, smooth-on was used in pretty much all movies that I’ve seen. Even the fake snow that was on the Harry Potter houses in Universal Studio was made by smooth-on!

During his presentation, he provided the class with tons of demos to make me feel inspired and mostly importantly, think outside the box. One of the activities was to balance 12 nails on top of 1 single nail. It was quite an mind-blowing experience. At first I didn’t think it was possible to do that. But once I saw how’s done. It simply blowed my mind with the creativeness in the solution. And here’s picture of how you would do it! Next to it is the smooth-on rubber glass.

The rubber glass is what they use in the movie making business. It can be used as fake shattered glasses when there’s a car accident, etc.

One of the lessons that I learned from the presentation was that as a leader, you must be nice to your people and treat them like family. At smooth-on, every employee is treated nicely, the company looks after their employee by providing personal assistance, and making sure that they are able to deliver when they need to. This class has been an mind-opening experience, and it has added a lot of dimensions to my education at Lehigh. A lot of time engineering is all about balancing 12 nails on 1 nail, and finding solutions to things that seemed impossible.


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Exploring Energy Solutions from Technology

As a ChemE at Lehigh, you really get to have well rounded ChemE experience. Other than exciting technical plant design and hands-on lab operations, you get to learn much more. For my CHE 376, Energy: Issues and Technology class, we were required to give a 20 minuted quick presentation on a type of technology that we can use that will address some of the current energy issues. My group and I decided to take on the topic of Syngas Producion via Co-electrolysis of CO2 and H2O. We think it’s a good topic because this technology was able to successful make use of the CO2 in our atmosphere, and convert it into something useful such as CO, H2 (Syngas), and O2. As you know, CO2 caused global warming is currently a major problem for this world. And there is a increase in energy demand with increasing population around the world. By the electrolysis of CO2 into syngas, the energy demand would be alleviated while maintaining a sustainable world.

Co-electrolysis of CO2 and H2O is a two step process where the first step converts CO2 and H2O to CO, H2 and O2, and the second step is the production of liquid fuel through Fisher-Tropsch process. The Fisher-Tropsch process converts a mixture of CO and H2 into liquid hydrocarbons, which can be used in cars and other industrial applications. Generally, the closed loop process goes like this:

In the above diagram, the CO2 is captured from the atmosphere and it goes through a co-electrolysis process in a solid oxide cell to produce syngas. And then an electrolysis-based synthetic fuel production process, with fischer-Tropsch Fuel synthesis, produces synthetic gasoline. This process sounded amazing and all. However, there’s  a few cons associated with it. First of all, the dominant costs of this process are the electricity cost and capital cost of the electrolyzer, which are ridiculously expensive. In addition, capturing CO2 from atmosphere is very difficult and sometime impossible. Other issues such as electrode corrosion and catalyst for ideal conversion also posts challenges to this technology.

If/When additional technology advancement takes place and make this process more viable, the system should be able to operate 70% electricity-to-liquid fuel efficiency and that the price of electricity needed to produce competitive synthetic gas is 2-3 US cents per kWh. We’re still doing more researches on this topic, and I hope to find some idea that could potentially make this process more appealing.


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ChEs representing at Lehigh Undergraduate Research Symposium

I’m really happy to announce that there were three senior Chemical Engineering students who competed at the 2015 Undergraduate Research Symposium. They are my dearest ChemE buddies Jon, Rob, and Tom. Lehigh’s annual Undergraduate Research Symposium is held each spring. It exhibits the intensive qualities of Lehigh engineering students. It’s also a perfect demonstration of the exciting research opportunities Lehigh offers to undergraduate students.

Student competitors who conducted excellent researches were nominated by their departments. Jon, Rob and Tom were nominated by the Chemical Engineering Department to represent us at the Symposium. They were to showcase the the significance and the outstanding work they had done, and explain their research topics to students and other visitors. I was fortunate enough to stop by at the event and hear my ChemE friends express their work. I feel much enlightened by the quality of the research they had done, and I’m very proud of my fellow ChemEs.

Tom performed his research on studying the Synthesis and Photocatalytic Properties of Titania Nanobelt Supported N-doped Titania Nanoparticles. His research explores the two-step synthesis of a new titania nano-composite consisting of nitrogen-doped titania (TiO2) nano-particles on TiO2 nano-belts for solar-activated water purification.

Jon did his research on exploring Novel Materials for Cathodes and Anodes of Solid Oxide Fuel Cells. His research aims to characterize different types of solid oxides in order to understand how different element combinations and crystal structures affect oxygen anion and electron conductivity in solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) anodes and cathodes.

Rob ventured on the Discovery and design of novel biological tools for advanced functional nanomaterials synthesis. He is searching through biological techniques, such as an enzyme from Stenotrophomonas maltophilia, cystathionine ?-lyase,  to carry out size-controllable nanoparticle synthesis.

They each did their research with professor McIntosh, and I was delighted to tell you that Jon won the third place in the competition, and Rob scored an honorable mention. They both won travel stipends to attend professional conferences across the country. Congratulations!!!

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Distillation Disturbance

I have to say that the senior process design class here at Lehigh was taught in much more detail compared to design class taught in other universities. I was able to learn a lot about Chemical Engineering process that I wouldn’t be able to learn as much had I joined a ChE undergraduate program at another school. One of a fundamental things about Chemical Engineering Plant Design that I learn from my senior design project here was distillation disturbances. The ability to handle disturbance is another very important aspect of a successful plant design. For our Ethylene Oxide plant, the distillation column should be able to handle flow and composition disturbance. For the flow disturbance, feed flow rates of 20% increase and decrease to the steady state flow rate were tested, assuming that the upstream unit does not generate more than 20% disturbance feeding into the distillation column.

I wanted to show you here a comparison of how a bad column scheme handled the disturbance poorly and a good column scheme where disturbance was handled much better.FixedRRThe above disturbance graph was generated as a result of a feed flow rate increases and decrease of 20% of its original steady state value. The objective of our plant involves meeting the specified product purity. The column scheme that generated this graph used a flow controller to fix reflux ratio by fixing the reflux and distillate flow rate. As you can see, the overhead impurity (top right graph) kept increasing as time goes on, eventually, it would fail out of the required purity value. The graphs below is a example where the overhead product purity was controlled.xD_CC20The overhead impurity eventually reached a new steady state. Although the response was as sharp as the Temperature, bottoms impurity, or reboiler duty (middle right, middle left, and bottom left), it was able to gradually reach new steady state values. One thing that we could work on was a figure out how to make the response quicker. Also, I probably should have plotted the reflux flow rate just to see how it works in correlation with the purities.

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