Unit Operations at Ohio State
The James and Patricia Dietz Unit Operations Laboratory at The Ohio State University is a mainstay of hands-on learning for undergraduate chemical engineers. While many chemical engineering programs are downsizing their laboratories and reducing the number of experiments offered to students to save on cost and space, the Dietz Unit Operations Laboratory has reinforced Ohio State's emphasis on undergraduate education for chemical engineers.
The equipment in the lab is similar in size and capabilities to equipment students will use in co-ops, internships, and future jobs. Being able to learn how to safely and efficiently perform laboratory experiments in the lab offers undergrads a competitive advantage when interviewing.
Students run 15 different experiments on equipment such as a plug flow reactor; absorption and adsorption columns; liquid-liquid extraction column; and an Eppendorff BioFlow reactor.
The most impressive experiment in Unit Ops is the continuous distillation column. Spanning over twenty-five feet, the column provides a striking visual display for visitors, who can see the column from the lobby. The twelve-tray bubble-cap distillation column is used to distill a mixture of water and ethanol.
In moving the column to CBE's new building, the column received a number of improvements. New automated sampling ports, designed by Leigh Evrard, were added. Now, with the push of a button, students can obtain samples from each tray in the column.
Mike Wilson, CBE's machinist and lab supervisor, and Professor Andy Maxson upgraded the column by automating key features, including feed flow rate, reflux ratio, and bottoms level. Students control the system and monitor performance on a graphical user interface (GUI) screen, simulating a control room in a chemical plant.
During the experiment, the feed tray and reflux ratio are varied, and samples are obtained at different locations in the column to monitor the ethanol concentration. A refractometer is used as an indirect measure of the ethanol concentration, with a calibration curve generated to link the instrument results to the ethanol mass fraction. Students use standard distillation analysis methods to calculate the column efficiency.
Mike Wilson is pleased with all the improvements. "I live for Unit Ops," he said. "Unit Ops is very trying at times, but seeing the group effort -- you just feel the energy in the air."
Many students experience strong peer bonding as a result of the shared challenge, and feel an immense sense of pride and accomplishment upon completing the class.
"I like Unit Ops because it brings everything together," said undergraduate Leah Soppi. "Unit Ops also teaches us how to work with people, which is why it is one of my favorite courses!"
Later, while job-hunting and starting a new job, graduates appreciate the experience even more. Major companies have reported back to our Unit Operations team that they prefer Ohio State grads over engineers from other schools (even higher-ranked programs) who don't provide the valuable hands-on training such as what is available in Ohio State's Unit Operations class.