From Boring to Bubbly: How Chemical Engineering Brings Magic to Life
Dear Readers (or Nerds)…
…However you wish to identify yourself. I prefer the latter.
It’s been a week of magical endeavors. Just like any other week.
A reflection, however, came to me as I wrote this article today. Perhaps the reason, we scientists and engineers, rarely believe in magic… Is because we create them.
In my recent discussion with Re:Build Optimation’s Senior Program Manager, Walt Toot, not only was my hypothesis solidified, but it was actually proven and concluded to be correct.
Walt is a chemical engineer by trait, and when asked about the 50,000-foot view of what his world is, he answered technically.
“Break chemical engineering into two parts. I’ll say chemistry instead of chemical… And engineering. A chemical engineer has to be able to understand both of those worlds. The world of chemistry has to do with chemical reactions and how things react with each other. How you can break things apart and start rebuilding them using chemical reactions.”
Now I want to slip a short compliment for you here. If you understood the difference between chemistry and chemical from the get-go, then you’re a nerd.
According to Walt, engineering has to do with equipment, procedures, and safety functions that get built into conducting chemical reactions. While you end up with a final product that you know is useful for people when it’s being manufactured, it can also be very unsafe when the materials in their raw state have very dangerous properties.
“As an engineer… We have to be able to figure out how to conduct that safely. One, you don’t want people’s property to be damaged. And more importantly, you don’t want people to be damaged… The stuff can really harm people when it’s in its pure state. And so that’s probably the biggest thing that we do, is to be sure that it’s safe for the people that are nearby.” Upon Walt’s answer, he finished with a clear philosophical conclusion as to what his world is about.
“And then everything flows from that. If the people are safe, then everything else is okay.”
Being an engineer is one thing, but when lives and the safety of many many people are in your hands, I can almost feel like that itself is magic! I can say confidently that Walt is a superhero of our own here in Re:Build Optimation.
In our article today, we will nerd out on chemical engineering through real-life cases and really see how the magic comes to life based on Walt’s eye-opening journey.
Introduction to Chemical Engineering
Chemical engineering is a field of study that deals with the application of physical and chemical sciences to develop processes and products that improve our daily lives. It’s a branch of engineering that is often misunderstood, with people thinking of it as a boring and complex field. But as a chemical engineering enthusiast, let me tell you that it’s not as dull as it seems. I’ve said it before…. Chemical engineering brings magic to life.
This multidisciplinary field is drawn from chemistry, physics, biology, and mathematics. Chemical engineers use their knowledge to design, develop, and optimize processes and products that are used in various industries such as pharmaceuticals, food, energy, and materials. They apply scientific principles to solve problems related to the production, transportation, and use of chemicals and other products. You’ll hear more about Walt in action just as I’ve described here, shortly.
What Chemical Engineers Do and Why It’s Actually Very ‘Human’
Contrary to popular belief, chemical engineering is not just about working with chemicals or laboratories with test tubes and beakers. It’s about using your creativity and ingenuity to solve problems and improve processes. Chemical engineers are involved in every aspect of the product life cycle, from research and development to production and distribution.
I asked Walt if there was ever a product or a project that doesn’t have some kind of chemical engineering touch. I mean, we live in a world of matter and chemical changes. Even every weld is a chemical change of sorts…
He answered, “It’s not a bad assumption to say that chemistry is involved in everything. And there are exceptions, of course… Assembly lines, where they’re putting lids on pop bottles, for example… That’s a physical change. You don’t have a chemical change going on there. But… Just about everything you see around you has come about as a result of some kind of chemical reaction purposely carried out by people.”
Chemical engineers are involved in a wide range of activities, from designing and optimizing processes to developing new materials and products. They do work with other professionals such as chemists, physicists, and biologists to find innovative solutions to complex problems.
If you thought chemical engineers go on days and months to end without talking to anyone outside of the lab… Well, you’re completely mistaken. In addition to technical skills, chemical engineers also need to have excellent communication and teamwork skills. They work in teams to develop and implement new processes and products and they have to communicate effectively with other professionals, such as managers, regulators, and customers.
After more than a few decades of indulging in chemical engineering, Walt admitted that life as a chemical engineer is “incredibly challenging”.
But what drew him to the life of chemical engineering is that “Every day is different in some way… and you can never just fall back on procedures… You always have to be using your head, your brain. And that I’ve always liked that.”
I was not THAT taken aback when I first heard his answers, but when I rewatched our interview, which you can also watch HERE (insert link), I really thought… Wow, he’s the real nerd OG right here.
Walt proceeded to mention that the people who worked with him, the chemical engineers, mechanical engineers, and electrical engineers, all enjoyed working with each other. And most importantly is that they are mostly very like-minded people. Mechanical engineers tend to focus on the equipment and figuring out how to build them while electrical engineers figure out how to put them together to make sure it’s safe to operate.
“They’re all unique individuals. They all have a lot of fun hobbies and, you know, just interesting things to talk about all the time.” Walt excitedly shared.
If that broke your dream of being an introverted chemical engineer, don’t give up. I was able to get some interesting and insightful brain juice from Walt, in regards to how he, and others like him… View the world… And the answer fascinated me, but it may just be a familiar ritual for you!
I asked Walt, “So out of curiosity… Do you live your life… Looking around things and going, oh, I know what chemicals are in those! And like, do you just like, see a world with compounds and chemicals and molecules? Is that how your brain works?”
I’m hoping you guessed his answer right because he said, ”Yeah, for the most part. You know, I try to… I try to turn it off most of the time, but it’s always there. It’s always there in the background.”
Phew! I would not turn it off if I had that superpower in me. Imagine if I had the power to create chemical reactions. I sure think the world would not be the same!
So nerds… Before we continue to nerd out into the technical stuff. Let me preach again. Chemical engineers are superheroes without capes.
Importance of Chemical Engineering in Our Lives: the magic it creates
Chemical engineering is a critical field that impacts our daily lives in many ways. The products and processes developed by chemical engineers have transformed the modern world. From the medicines we take to the food we eat, from the energy we use to the materials we rely on, chemical engineering has played a significant role in making our lives better.
“Okay, since I am a senior engineer, I tend to work on a lot of things at the same time. And then the younger engineers are the ones that are… Doing all the hard work – is the way I like to describe it. But, you know, I provide overall guidance to a lot of different teams and a lot of different areas.”
That was very honest of you Walt. I might get a different angle if I interviewed the younger engineers huh… Just kidding. They’re all still superheroes.
Here’s a fun fact! Walt is specialized in fire codes and building codes. His expertise is very critical and required not only in our home state but also throughout the entire United States.
Based on Walt’s discovery, there are lots of commonalities between the codes of the different states. Although they are not identical, they’re common enough that Walt was able to prowess the codes on a global scale.
In recent years, Re:Build Optimation facilitated Eastman Kodak with their 750 Gallon Glass-Lined Reactor Upgrade.
The Synthetic Chemicals Division at Building 304 in EBP had a 750-gallon glass-lined reactor, Vessel #301, that was in need of a major controls and piping upgrade to meet current division controls design by replacing obsolete mechanical and electrical components, as well as meet NYS MON/MACT regulations (NYS pollutant monitoring & capture control technology). This vessel was operating with obsolete pneumatic controls from the 1970s, had numerous maintenance issues where spare parts were very difficult to replace, and the overall system was in need of a complete electronic/controls upgrade.
Re:Build Optimation provided the design and procurements of equipment, instruments, piping, and electrical components and installed them at the start of 2022. The upgrade consisted of standard design equipment, instruments, and controls for Reactor 301 for a Three (3) Service MOD 300 controlled reactor system.
This is where Walt’s help comes in with the process of mechanical and E&I engineering. This involved equipment, valves, instruments, piping, and electrical/control components to be removed, and then installation of new equipment in its place. A number of old control panels, and unused legacy piping, and improved the work area by opening up much-needed space when the old unused items were removed.
After the trades work was completed, Re:Build Optimation pressure tested and electrically checked out the entire system for the new equipment installed. The various sub-processes were then started up and run successfully.
Walt, ultimately, was the person who was brought in to ensure that everyone understood what the code said about the situation. Thanks to his experience and expertise, Walt was able to apply his knowledge of the basic principles that are occurring. Some factors that were considered included the legal minimum requirement in such situations, the best way to go above and beyond with the code, and the options to present to the end user.
“We’re talking about situations where people have chemistry going on, chemical reactions, chemistry that involves the potential to harm people. That’s what the codes are all about. It’s a compilation of knowledge over the years of professionals from many different industries that talk about the type of situations that you need to avoid. And it also gives you guidelines on how to go about doing that safely.”
This part gets me every time. I know two different types of people in life. One type focuses on the results their work brings to the table, and another one focuses on the milestones or process of each journey. It’s almost hard to enjoy each part here as a chemical engineer behind the scenes, it seems. Once a project is complete, I can only imagine that… No news is good news.
We are saddened as well, by the recent news of the chocolate factory explosion in Pennsylvania. Police and city officials said that the cause of a deadly fire is under investigation after seven people were killed and several others were injured. The explosion occurred Friday evening at the RM Palmer Company in West Reading, located about 60 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday said it’s launching a safety investigation looking into the natural gas explosion and fire.
Another heart-breaking incident happened in Florida as a raging 5-acre fire burns plastic pots outside the Kissimmee nursery plant warehouse.
The massive industrial fire in Kissimmee, Florida, broke out behind a manufacturer of plastic nursery and greenhouse supplies, just a few miles away from Walt Disney World.
When asked for his opinion regarding these incidents, Walt replied wistfully, ”A lot of the spectacular ones that you know about… Clearly, the codes are designed to help people avoid that happening. But then there’s also the day-to-day damage that the codes also try to mitigate and help people to understand. You know, I view my role as much of a teacher, as a code enforcer because the code really is about helping people understand what they’re dealing with so that they can make responsible choices about how to protect their workers, how to protect their property, and how to protect the people that live… in the area around their plant.”
Walt’s journey has not come to an end. Next week, we will continue to break down the second part of an interview with Walt as we nerd out on chemical engineering. Make sure to stay tuned or contact us below with any inquiries that you have.