Nerding Out on Chemical Engineering
Hello again, nerds! If you haven’t already read the first part of the chemical engineering dissection, please feel free to do so here: https://www.optimation.us/blogs/from-boring-to-bubbly-how-chemical-engineering-brings-magic-to-life/. Some fascination awaits you there as you not only learn more about a chemical engineer in action but also the magic that chemical engineering brings to life!
So we’ve established that chemical engineering is everywhere, from the food we eat to the clothes we wear. Some of them you might not even have realized!
Chemical Engineering in Everyday Life
Did you know that chemical engineers develop processes to make food safer, more nutritious, and more flavorful? When you eat and you see colors, that’s chemical engineering right there. Perhaps an aroma? Or a delicious salty-sweet-like taste? That’s chemical engineering.
They also develop new food products that meet consumer demand for convenience and health. For example, new packaging materials that keep food fresh longer and reduce waste (more of which we will learn later in this blog)
Chemical engineers also develop products such as shampoos, lotions, and cosmetics that are safe, effective, and environmentally friendly. Interestingly enough, chemical engineers are also responsible for making products easier to use.
In addition, clothing can be made more comfortable, durable, and affordable by chemical engineering. For example, new fabrics that are more breathable, more stretchable, and more resistant to wrinkles.
That being said, Re:Build Optimation’s Senior Program Manager, Walt Toot, whom you should have met in our first blog, unveiled one of his favorite projects that involved chemical engineering and it was flippin’ cool!
“So one thing that I’ve worked on and (Re:Build) Optimation in the last few years and this has to do with food supply. I didn’t know this until this client came, but there’s a lot of waste of food in the produce section after it gets in the store because it only has a certain shelf life,” said Walt.
“And if it exceeds that, then it’s literally waste that gets thrown away. So that’s an inefficiency in our food system. Well, this client came to us with a method for extending the shelf life of food or produce in the produce department.”
Walt remembered the time when they were going to go test the machine after they’d built it to apply to the produce. At that time, they were hoping to reduce the waste rate approximately from 40% down to 20%.
“That was a big improvement. Yeah, that was their goal! They were hoping they could achieve that… While the very first test they ever did with this stuff out in the supermarket, they didn’t just get 20%… They had zero! They had no wastage of that produce!”
By no waste, that would mean 100% of the product they brought in successfully sold out to an end consumer. The typical experience without that treatment is only on the order of 60%. That’s unreal!
This was a huge success, but Walt was able to put a hold on my excitement by sharing their biggest challenge, which also turned out to be one of Walt’s greatest breakthroughs.
During the start of the project, a method and framework were already set in place by the client. It was, however, to Walt’s suspicion that there was a part of the process that may not have been the way to go. Knowing that the client’s team was a very intelligent group of individuals, Walt gave the client the benefit of the doubt right out of the gate. “They obviously know what they’re talking about with the big picture. And so I said, All right, okay, we’ll do this. And I started figuring out what to buy and, I was literally 2 hours from pushing the button to place an order for the equip the equipment of the sub-assembly.”
Excitedly, he continued, “They called me and said that… They did more experiments and that’s not going to work.”
The moment Walt was asked his opinion on how to supply a solution to this issue, he knew right away what would be the right thing to do.
He called this invention his “Fingerprint.” Walt designed a replacement for a subsystem in their machinery.
“So the biggest part that we designed for them… Was of the material that needed to be sprayed on the produce… We figured out how to make large batches of that (recipe) in an effective way and to deliver the spray in an even pattern so that it would properly coat everything. And then the part after that was, you have to dry it. Well, that’s where I came in. It was the dryer. That was my invention for that.”
As we overview this project, we were able to get a bigger picture of what the constraints are. In this situation, there was already a piece of machinery that was going to be used to convey the wet material. The design was already established, and the next step was to figure out the most effective way to deliver heat to that device so it can help drive off the moisture.
When looking at the forms of drying, there are two types of drying. Convective drying and diffusion-limited drying.
Convective drying consists of simultaneous heat and mass transfer through hot and dry gas (usually air). It is used to accelerate the provision of heat necessary to cause evaporation and remove the water vapor from the surface of the produce. Basically, when you speed up the air that’s flowing past something, it’ll result in faster drying.
In this case, diffusion drying, “is when if you turn the air rate up, nothing happens because the material is so dry and it’s so thick, so to speak, that it’s hard for the moisture to move through it.” Walt explained. “And so hitting it with higher air rates doesn’t help.”
Basically, in my nonchemical engineering brain, I’m picturing trying to dry a wet apple versus drying a birthday cake with wet frosting on it. You probably use air to dry the apple the air wouldn’t dry the cake. Fortunately, Walt confirmed this was the correct case and analogy.
I don’t know why I came up with that analogy, but it is making me crave some apples… and cake. Maybe watch a little bit of football… drink a little bit of beer…
Yeah, nerds like to have fun too. We’re not all ‘sub-system and convection drying’ wired all the time. Really.
In fact, I got some fun facts from Walt that got me all jittery.
We jumped on tons of chemical engineering stuff for nearly an hour, Walt had this impeccable level of energy. He didn’t get tired of talking about all these systems and technologies, but what’s insanely amusing was I straight up just asked him…
“So uh Walt, you know, when you’re not at work working on teams, making amazing things happen, what is occupying your mind and your time out of work? Are you watching Marvel movies? Are you a sports fan? Are you a car guy? Like, tell me about Walt.”
I know those were a lot of questions, but you can guess which question he answered first… WITHOUT any hesitation, he said, “My family is huge into the Marvel movies. We’ve actually watched them from all the way through, seen almost all of them in the theater, first of all.”
Now nerds… Watch and learn. That is true dedication.
A FAMILY of nerds. I will want to join that watching session soon Walt. Hopefully, I will also be able to train my family to become a nerd army like yours.
If you thought the surprise was over… No.
“And then secondly, we’ve actually watched them at home from start to finish. It’s not a bench, so to speak, but… We started and worked our way through them all, every single one of them.”
That was Walt. Not me. Yep. He said it. He didn’t stop there either.
“So we like the Marvel movies and I’ve always been a huge sports fan. I’m originally from Buffalo, so I’ve been a Bills fan all my life and what’s really neat is I happened to live out West when a certain fella named Joe Montana was out there. Yeah. So I got to see Joe. I was living out there when Joe Montana was doing his thing, so I got to see that, too.”
When asked what’s the best movie in the Marvel series, Walt answered hesitantly… (as he should be)
“So I mean there’s certainly lots. But the one that just popped into my head and the reason that there was I’m going to say Ant-Man because I remember when I saw the ads for Ant-Man thinking to myself, You got to be kidding me. This is going to be stupid. That guy is great in that movie. I really like it. Turned out that movie was fantastic.”
HA! I clearly loved this one.
“When a movie surprises me like that, that’s the one that usually sticks in my head.”
I continued to as the million-dollar question, “Are you with me that DC has got some room to grow?”
I am aware this is a tad bit too controversial for the readers, but here’s his answer:
“Yeah. But as far as DC goes we’re fans of Zack Levy when he did the series Chuck so he’s doing a character called Shooting Up or at the Movies called Shazam… But we’re prejudiced too, because, you know, we love Zack Levy.”
By now, we are fully aware of how nerdy Walt is, but I found it very heartwarming to know that Walt, just like many of us, and perhaps a majority of us, LOVES to enjoy a good movie(s) and some quality time outside of engineering!
Back to Chemical Engineering…
In the first part of our blog, we went over food waste and Walt’s sub-system invention. When asked about another favorite project of his, he shared some of his interest and observation on technologies that he think are going to be part of the cornerstone of the future.
Walt and Re:Build Optimation is currently working with people who are trying to reduce emissions from gas wells. They are trying to create the so-called ‘hydrogen economy.’
Hydrogen economy is where you generate and store hydrogen, and use it for fuel vehicles or electricity during night time or off hours. It is a very similar concept to circularity where the generation and usage of hydrogen become very efficient and effective in both time and financial aspects.
For example, if a solar farm creates excess electricity during the day. It can’t just waste that electricity. So what you do is you make hydrogen with it. And then at nighttime, when there’s no sunlight or no solar power, you take that hydrogen and you run it through a fuel cell to make electricity.
It is a way of having electricity 24 hours a day from solar power.
Many people question what solar power is going to do for us at nighttime.
According to Walt, that’s a fair question right there.
He agreeably said, “And so I’m happy to tell them. I said, look, there are people that are working on this. There are people who are figuring out how to deliver electricity at nighttime when the sun’s not up. And so we just have to be patient with it because it is a total changeover.”
Walt expressed his belief on how different the modern world is. He said that what pleases him the most is that as he is nearing the end of his career, he is seeing all sorts of changes happen.
They started happening around the year 2007-2008, and unfortunately, some things halted to expand and move forward. Walt understands that the world is a complicated place and that back then, it didn’t seem like people were very sophisticated in their understanding of what it would take to actually do these things.
“Now, however, it’s totally different. You know, the people that are working on this, they know what they’re doing and they’re serious about it, and I think it’s going to happen.” He said wholeheartedly.
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If the hydrogen economy/technology Walt mentioned can be implemented in solar farms, this will be a game changer. I asked Walt how hydrogen is created and whether it is an efficient process.
“Well, one way to create it is called electrolysis of water. So in that scenario, I described earlier where you’re taking solar power and making hydrogen, I skipped over the step where first the solar power is used to create electricity, then the electricity is used to split water. People have been practicing electrolysis for many, many decades, but now they’re figuring out how to apply solar power and renewable power to that technology.”
Eventually, during the process of capturing hydrogen, the notion that effluents will result in this beautiful thing called oxygen. You get BOTH hydrogen and oxygen!
When the hydrogen is reused at a later stage to make electricity, you get water.
“It becomes complete. The way that a hydrogen fuel cell works is it’s a membrane that allows hydrogen and oxygen to mix in a controlled manner. So just segway for a second. You’re familiar. You remember the Challenger explosion, right? The space shuttle.”
Yes. I watched it as a kid. (HA! Nerd from the get-go indeed.)
“Yeah. So that’s what happens when you accidentally mix hydrogen and oxygen, too fast, in large quantities. That’s what that explosion was.” Walt explained that nonchalantly.
Quite hard to believe and imagine, but hang in there…
Walt continued, “That’s not what a fuel cell is. You don’t want that explosion to happen. So what a fuel cell is, is that it creates an environment where the hydrogen and oxygen can react with each other without exploding. And instead, they create electricity in the process of rejoining into water.”
Now that makes more sense, right?
So instead of a destructive thing, it is a useful thing.
During this process, it becomes more fascinating to know that coal nuclear, and other non-renewable energy can be prevented. It doesn’t necessarily have to happen if we can use the ‘clean’ and beautiful way of splitting water and rejoining them… Or am I wrong?
Walt pressed on the urgency of this matter.
“Yeah. I hope. That’s why I said… people are working on it to get us there because… The way you evaluate fuels is you look at how much carbon dioxide is being produced per useful unit of energy. And it turns out that coal is the worst. It has the highest amount of carbon dioxide per amount of useful energy that’s created. That’s why there’s pressure to phase that out before anything else.”
Nuclear is a whole different thing that doesn’t make carbon dioxide, but it does make radioactive substances that last hundreds of thousands of years. We surely don’t want that!
Unfortunately, there hasn’t been any effective way to get rid of that yet. This is why the hydrogen-in-water method, optimistically, is a good way to get us beyond both of those.
“On the spectrum of hydrocarbons, the next thing is natural gas. Natural gas is a very good ratio of carbon dioxide to enter useful energy. And so that’s why there’s been a lot of conversion of coal-fired power plants to natural gas. The carbon footprint should do that. So that’s why that’s been happening.” Walt elaborated.
If we met in a bar…
Weird way to start a topic… I know, but I shifted things a little bit and asked Walt…
“If I were to meet you in a bar and we’re sitting around just chit-chatting over some peanuts and a beer, and I go, Hey, well, what do you do? And you go, I’m a chemical engineer. What’s the best thing about being a chemical engineer? What’s your go-to story? What do you always lean on?”
He said, “Well if we’re in a bar, I’m going to have to say something about how to make the stuff that we’re drinking.”
Okay, quick poll guys. Would you, or would you not, want to meet Walt in a bar?
But yeah, that’s cool!
Another fun fact is that Walt worked on a project that had fermentation involved. Although they weren’t making alcohol, they were we were designing a fermentation reactor. And that sounds even cooler.
“That’s the key to making an alcoholic drink is you have to have microorganisms working on the matter and make ethanol.”
Now it gets interesting. So the ethanol creation process is similar to when making consumable alcohol.
Walt explained, “So… The alcohol that’s in beverages is ethanol. And the way that the way we come about that is you take yeast, mix it with sugars, and let it react. It’s called fermentation. What happens is the yeast converts the sugars, it breaks them down into ethanol and carbon dioxide. So a fermentation reactor, you have to allow carbon dioxide to bubble off.”
The MORE interesting part is that this project was for the jet fuel for the Olympics made from farm waste!
Byogy Renewables, Inc. of San Jose, CA is a biofuels organization. The Summer Olympics was supposed to be held in Japan in 2020. The theme of the Olympics was to be sustainability. Housing, medals, uniforms, and other materials were made from recycled materials. A decision was made that during the Olympics there should be a stadium flyover where the jets were flying on jet fuel made from farm waste. Re: Build Optimation was contacted by Byogy, an American company, that had the contract and rose to the need for the technology and the schedule. We built a system of reactors and stills that converted farm waste to ethanol and then the ethanol to jet fuel. The system was designed and built to meet all Japanese mechanical and electrical codes, shipped to Japan, and tested. The results were amazingly successful.
Walt didn’t forget my original question, he continued to finish off.
“Yeah. So, the same thing that started the beverages that were consumed in a bar is the same thing that started the reaction to make jet fuel. I mean, it’s incredibly broad and there’s a lot of ingenuity out there. People have figured out a lot of things over the years.”
Now that, is mind-blowing, folks.
Innovations in Chemical Engineering
Chemical engineers around the world today are using biotechnology to develop new products and processes that are more sustainable and environmentally friendly. For example, biofuels from renewable sources such as algae and waste products, just like Byogy Renewables.
Other components include AI (Artificial Intelligence). Chemical engineers are using artificial intelligence to optimize processes and predict outcomes. For example, they are developing new algorithms that can predict the behavior of complex systems, such as chemical reactions and industrial processes.
Lastly, nanotechnology has also become a new unique property – new coatings are currently developed to be more durable and scratch-resistant, as well as new sensors that can detect tiny amounts of chemicals.
When asked his opinion about nanotechnology and whether Walt is involved in some nano projects himself, he said that he is personally working on some nanotechnology projects with clients.
“The fact that for many decades the primary push in manufacturing of chemicals has been to make new but very large facilities centralized. The idea was, that was the most efficient way to spend money on machinery for making chemicals. Unfortunately, what that does is it becomes less efficient, bigger equipment, and just simply is not as efficient in causing chemical reactions as small equipment.”
Walt revealed that he is starting to see clients looking to make smaller systems. The efficiency of smaller systems is now recognized as worthy and removes constraints on materials. Lastly, it’s more important to be efficient in how you convert those materials.
“And so there’s a recognition of that and there’s a push on now to build things smaller, more point, you know, for now instead of one or two major plants in the whole United States, maybe you’ve got one small one in each of the 50 states to do something to make something. And that is starting to become the model for moving into the future.”
The theory is that when you’ve got nanoparticles and they can be distributed evenly across extremely large areas, as long as they’re effective, you need a much smaller batch when it comes to our physical perception of it. The smaller the particles, the more efficient it could be to apply them if they’re involved in a reaction. The surface area to volume ratio is huge for small particles, and that makes them much more reactive than big particles.
Chemical engineering is a fascinating and dynamic field that brings magic to life. It’s a field that impacts our daily lives in many ways, from the food we eat to the clothes we wear. Chemical engineers are responsible for developing processes and products that are safer, more efficient, and more environmentally friendly.
My last question for Walt was dedicated to you, future chemical engineers. So read carefully.
“If some young person were to get a hold of this blog, what is the first thing a high school student ought to do to start going down a chemical engineering pathway?”
Walt took a second, and said…
“I would say study everything you love because it all comes together at some point. But the real practical nuts and bolts of it… If you can’t do chemistry, you’re not going to be a good chemical engineer. And if you’re not good at math… If you’re not good at those two things, then you really ought to steer clear of it.”
So there goes our ‘nerd out’ edition on chemical engineering. For any inquiries or questions about any projects mentioned above, simply contact us through the form below.
Until next time,
Nerd Blogger Josh