Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Illinois

Unit Operations

As a core course for chemical engineering students (and one of the last classes taken before graduation), Unit Operations, or Unit Ops, delivers hands-on experience for students before they head into industry or continue on in academia.

“They’ve learned all this theory from freshman to senior year. Now it’s their first real chemical engineering lab. They’ve been in physics labs and chemistry labs. Now, finally they get to work on a distillation column, work on a reactor,” said Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Lecturer Dr. Jerrod A. Henderson.

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Students attend lectures on Mondays and work on their experiments during the rest of the week. Henderson seeks input from students on topics they want to know more about. In recent years they have requested more information about data analysis, and where and how the lab’s unit ops are used in industry. Because many seniors have been on internships and co-ops, Henderson taps into their experiences and invites them to share their knowledge with the class. Other Unit Ops lectures cover process safety, a topic that ties back to the students’ first year in chemical and biomolecular engineering. Every year, freshmen create posters about a chemical engineering disaster and seniors provide feedback.

As enrollment in ChBE continues to grow, half of the senior class takes Unit Ops in the fall and the other half takes it in the spring. Each student rotates through two main categories of reactors and separators, plus an ‘other’ or specialty category.

These days, students learn on several different types of reactors: a continuous stir tank reactor, plug flow reactor, batch reactor, and a bioreactor. The separators include the continuous distillation column, a batch distillation column and a liquid liquid extractor. In the “other” category, students work on a pumps and piping experiment, the polymer extruder and an evaporator. Each student will learn on one of the reactors and one separation system.

“I really like how students get that there’s real world application to what we’re doing. You don’t have to excite the students about the course. They’re very interested. I enjoy being able to see our students as one step away from being an engineer,” Henderson said.

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In the bioreactor sponsored by Dow AgroSciences, students grow yeast cells and study all the factors that can impact their growth curve, from agitation to temperature. At the pumps and piping station this spring students examined how and which pipes and pumps work best for water versus Clorox 2, the stain remover and color booster. At the polymer extruder sponsored by LyondellBasell, students process low density polyethylene pellets into plastic bag material. At the batch distillation station, students separate ethanol and water.

“The experiments are things that students will do when they go out in industry,” Henderson said.

Thanks to our current sponsors of the Unit Ops Lab

Chevron Phillips
Dow AgroSciences
University of Illinois College of Liberal Arts & Sciences