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Chemical engineering students win international competition

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A team of University of Louisiana at Lafayette students has proven its adeptness at making refineries safer.

Four chemical engineering students pooled their talents to win an international contest to reduce hazards inside a simulated environment for separating potentially combustible chemicals.

Seniors Matthew Crawford, Paul Robicheaux, David Shoemaker and Anh Tran placed first in a “ChemEsports” competition at the 2019 American Institute of Chemical Engineers student conference held recently in Orlando, Fla.

As part of the competition, teams from 16 colleges and universities from the U.S. and Canada operated a simulated distillation column, using software of the type refinery workers train with.

The columns are used refine chemicals – such as crude oil. When crude is heated inside a distillation column, its elements with lower boiling points – like gasoline – turn to vapor and rise. The vapor is collected in a condenser where, once cooled, it converts back to liquid.

The potential for accidents such as explosions exists inside the columns because they contain large amounts of boiling, pressurized liquids.

Working inside mock environments, teams were charged with monitoring distillation processes, and devising solutions for a range of potential glitches. These included malfunctions with machinery and instrumentation, and human error.

Students were judged based on the speed and effectiveness with which they noticed and analyzed problems, proposed and implemented solutions, and prevented the loss of time, money or potential hazards to people and property.

The “ChemEsports” contest blended aspects of chemical engineering, virtual reality and esports. Virtual reality is an interactive experience that happens within a simulated environment via computer-generated animation. Esports, or electronic sports, are video game competitions played on computers and broadcast on screens.

Dhan Lord Fortela, an instructor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, co-advised the team. Ashley Mikolajczyk, an instructor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, was the team's other advisor.

Mikolajczyk said the contest is designed to combine what students learn in textbooks and classrooms with challenges and scenarios they might encounter in the workplace.   

“It’s bridging the gap between technical knowledge and real-world operations,” she said.

Other competitors included teams from Cal Poly Pomona; Carnegie Mellon University; Lehigh University; New Jersey Institute of Technology; New Mexico State University; Tulane University; University of California, Berkeley, University of California, Irvine; the United States Military Academy at West Point; the University of South Florida; the University of Tulsa; the University of Virginia; the University of Waterloo and Youngstown State University.

Photo: UL Lafayette chemical engineering seniors, from left, David Shoemaker, Anh Tran, Matthew Crawford and Paul Robicheaux, placed first in a “ChemEsports” competition at the 2019 American Institute of Chemical Engineers student conference held recently in Orlando, Fla.

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