Through collaboration and innovative problem-solving, a team of six chemical engineering students won first place in their assignment at the 32ndnd WERC environmental design competition in Las Cruces, NM
The team, consisting of Rafik Baitamouni, Hagen Childers, Richard Danylo, Rachel Hampp, Mason Link and Emily McCarty, were tasked with developing a solution to remove volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, from contaminated water produced in processes run by Oil and gas are used industry. VOCs are the gases released into the air during these processes; they are often harmful to the environment and can even be carcinogenic.
“Currently, the oil and gas industry recycles the water used in their fracking process. This recycled water is held in air-free holding tanks and could potentially release the VOCs into the environment. Monitoring equipment in New Mexico recently showed that VOC levels at oil and gas sites are rising and need to be reduced,” Childers said.
“To meet environmental regulations, the water must first be treated for VOCs. This will protect the community while also conserving an abundance of water each year,” McCarty said. The competition consisted of a paper, an oral presentation and demonstrations of the contestants’ solutions in front of a jury of industry professionals. In addition to technical design, their solution must address health and safety, environmental and public order issues. The group must also provide an economic analysis of what would be required to implement their solution.
“The competition is an excellent experience for the team in dealing with difficult open design problems. Many graduates cite it as one of the major highlights of their time in OHIO,” said Darin Ridgway, associate professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.
The OHIO team addressed the assigned problem by developing an adsorption process that used granular activated carbon, or GAC. The solution uses the GAC to adsorb the VOCs on its porous surface. The GAC can be regenerated, making this solution environmentally friendly and cost-effective.
“The team determined through many beaker tests in our lab that this is the best solution,” Childers said.
While this solution earned them first place in their task, the path to success was not always clear. In the early stages of preparing for the competition, the team struggled to communicate with each other. They quickly realized that the problem they needed to solve intersected with the discipline of civil engineering, and as a group of chemical engineering students, they adapted to the interdisciplinary element of the challenge. As the semester progressed, they began to build trust in each other and find a balance between their different skills and leadership styles.
“This experience has given me lifelong skills and friendships. The group started out with a lack of communication and trust issues, but over the course of the year we all learned how to communicate effectively as a group and became good friends,” Childers said.
The culmination of their work enabled them to present at the WERC Environmental Design Contest at New Mexico State University. When they presented their solution to the competition, the jury had concerns about their design. The group welcomed the feedback and sought to adjust their design as needed.
“When it comes to engineering, it is important to be guided in the right direction by professionals with practical experience. Sometimes it’s good to be wrong because you always learn from it,” McCarty said.
This competition gave team members the opportunity to develop their technical skills in chemical engineering by jointly developing a solution to a real-world problem. In addition to practical experience, they were able to further develop their soft skills in communication and leadership.
“One thing that has been difficult in navigating COVID in recent years has been the lack of hands-on learning. As an engineering student, I thought that was all I would do, but my college experience has changed a bit. I think this opportunity really helped me reignite my passion for engineering and gave me the opportunity to have a bigger presence at Russ College,” McCarty said.