Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Illinois

Intro course focuses on safety

Six years ago, when a heat exchanger failed at the Tesero refinery in Washington, causing an explosion and the deaths of seven employees, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board launched an investigation, released a report, and issued recommendations.

The catastrophic accident was one of nearly 60 process safety incidents that Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering students, most of them freshmen, studied during a recent semester in “CHBE 121: The Profession.” They read board reports, summarized findings, provided recommendations for future companies working with similar hazards, and shared their insights at a poster session at the Illini Union. Seniors, many of whom will soon be in charge of these processes, offered feedback to the students. Departmental faculty, who will soon have the students in upcoming classes, also came to offer feedback on their posters.

CHBE 121.1

The process safety exhibits have been included in the class since Spring 2012. They’re part of the department’s “design across the curriculum” efforts, which calls for students completing design projects in core chemical engineering courses throughout their undergraduate career. In addition to analysis of a process safety incident, CHBE 121 includes lectures and discussions on the history and scope of chemical engineering as well as trips to plants.

Learning from real-life incidents

In 2012, the accreditation board ABET expanded program criteria for chemical engineering to require curriculum to include the hazards associated with engineering processes. The department’s process safety projects are sponsored by Shell.

“This project allows students to start their chemical engineering education with an in depth analysis of a major safety incident and critically evaluate actions moving forward,” said Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Lecturer Dr. Troy Vogel, who teaches the course. “The same students are then reminded three years later, right before graduation, of the impact they have on the lives of individuals and communities if something were to go wrong.”

Vogel assigns each group a different major process safety incident that happened within the last 15 years. Most incidents are taken from completed Chemical Safety Board investigations to provide the students with at least one in-depth source of information.

“It is a very sobering experience to stand in a room with nearly 60 different projects of major industrial accidents which have all happened within the student’s lifetime,” Vogel said. “Every time I create the list, I reflect on the continued mistakes our industry makes, compromising the integrity of property, but more importantly affecting the lives of people and families,” he said.

For their project, students Maddy Chalifoux and Matt Daminato reviewed the Patridge-Raleigh oilfield explosion in Mississippi in 2006. Daminato said he’s enjoyed learning more about what he could do with a degree in chemical engineering in CHBE 121, but also, “how to avoid incidents like this one” in Mississippi.

The one-credit-hour class “is not as intensive as other classes” in the ChBE curriculum, Chalifoux said. “But it’s interesting because, coming in as freshmen, we don’t know a lot about what chemical engineering is. The class gives us some insight into what we could do (with our degree) and what we will be doing for the next four years,” she said.

The class often includes visits from alumni who work in a variety of industries. Seniors also talk to the class and share their experiences in internships or co-ops and studying abroad and other classes in the ChBE curriculum.

“It’s given us information that we just don’t get in chemistry class,” said student Tom Crawshaw.