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Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

Undergrads build distillation column for Engineering Open House

Thousands of curious students, from elementary to high school age, are exploring the halls of the University of Illinois engineering buildings this weekend as part of the 96th annual Engineering Open House.

Brendan Schedler and Andrew Stolcers explain the distillation column to visitors.
Brendan Schedler and Andrew Stolcers explain the distillation column to visitors.

The popular outreach event, called “The STEM of Innovation” this year, features over 250 exhibits, four design competitions, the giant Tesla coil, and many other attractions.

Chemical and biomolecular engineering students set up exhibits in Loomis Laboratory on a range of topics, such as crystal structures, beer fermentation, organic chapstick, and soap manufacturing.

New this year was a functioning distillation column built from scratch by students.

“I was interested in chemical engineering when I graduated high school, but I didn’t really know what chemical engineers dealt with,” said senior Andrew Stolcers. “What we really wanted to do was give kids a visualization of what actually goes on in the chemical engineering world. A lot of that is seen through continuous distillation. Almost every engineer that graduates and goes into industry will work with distillation. Our goal was to show visual separation of components.”

The students did that by using an acid indicator along with a dilute amount of vinegar in water so visitors “could see the pH change across the tower, which gives little kids and idea of, ‘Oh, I can see something is changing in concentration as it goes up or down the tower.”

“We wanted to do it in the way that distillation is actually occurring, rather than just bubbling up liquid and running water down the top. We wanted to show kids what distillation is and give adults an idea of the applications of distillation, ranging from production of plastics to consumer products all the way to petrochemicals,” Stolcers said.

“What I loved about this project is it’s exactly what chemical engineers do,” said ChBE student Samantha Sutton. She graduates in December and wants to go into process engineering. Last year she worked in a chemical plant and this summer will work in food manufacturing.

The students worked on the project for about two months and met regularly with Dr. Troy Vogel, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering lecturer, to share ideas and provide updates on progress.

“It’s very cool. I’m very impressed with what they put together,” Vogel said.

Visitors learn about the continuous distillation of two components.
Visitors learn about the continuous distillation of two components.

“It’s been a hands on way for me to enjoy the design aspect, to get creative and build from scratch,” said Vishaal Yepuri, who is currently taking CHBE 422: Mass Transfer Operations. Last summer he worked for a pharmaceutical company in Puerto Rico and will work for a consumer products company this summer.

In addition to Stolcers, Sutton and Yepuri, the distillation project involved students Brendan Schedler, Morgan Folino, Ryan Sanders, Paul Schochat and Therese Brown.

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