Feifei Hu

September 9, 2019

Cornell Students Single-Handedly Operate a Chemical Engineering Facility in Discovery Space Program

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What kind of world-class chemical engineering facility would let a group of undergraduates run their plant for a day?

The Discovery Space program at Imperial College in London does. This summer, in a fast-paced and immersive environment, undergraduate chemical engineers from Cornell applied classroom theory to real-life objectives over the course of five weeks.

Feifei Hu ’21 was one of the 21 chemical engineering students from Cornell who participated in the program. From her mentor, Dr. Colin Hale, she learned about the role that chemical engineers can play in finding climate change solutions.

One of these potential solutions is the Carbon Capture Pilot Plant, a scaled-down version of a real distillation column that uses the powerful properties of heat to separate nitrogen and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. These plants are being used to fight the effect of greenhouse gases on climate change.

“We have to be conscious of environmental impact. Especially because we are chemical engineers, we can actually do something about it,” Hu said.

Students also learned to read piping and instrumentation diagrams, which display the instrumentation behind plant processes and their interconnectedness.

In the real-life application component of the program, groups of students ran the entire plant from the control room, transitioning from their paper diagrams to a 3-D, four-story plant. They were responsible for controlling the liquid and gas processes for carbon dioxide absorption and taking data measurements of column performance.

According to Hu, for the plant to operate, the students had to understand the control loops, the monitor readings for pumps and heaters, and the procedures for start-up and shut-down.

The view from the first floor

Hu described how the out-of-classroom experiences changed her view of real engineering work; for example, reacting to something in the plant not working.

“Alarms would go off if something was wrong,” Hui explained. “You learned how everyone reacts in a panic situation.”

According to Hu, emergency response in a plant relies heavily on communication and consistency. When the alarms go off, members of the team often had to spread out across the plant to figure out what had gone wrong. In real-life situations, lack of communication could mean losing track of members of the team.

Their other major project was the rig building challenge. Cornell students collaborated with students from several other universities for this challenge, including students from Dalian University in China and Georgia Tech.

According to Hu, teams had to build a working closed loop rig that transported fluid from one bucket to another. They would then manipulate their rigs by calibrating pumps or changing the power source inputs to meet demands such as maintaining a constant flow rate or maintaining a certain level of fluid.

In addition to a project sketch and safety procedures for their rig, the teams were required to follow a budget based on the valves and pipes they had used and submit a finalized version at the end of the exercise.

“I’m really grateful for the chance I got to be a part of this program. I learned a lot every day that I was in the lab and had fun exploring London on the days that I wasn’t,” Hu said.