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Last updateThu, 26 Apr 2018 2pm

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University of Kentucky Helps Students Prepare for Real World Engineering

Knowledge in instrumentation and control is critical in the process and manufacturing industries. However, graduating engineers are often lacking in these key areas. Even as universities deemphasize instrumentation and control, industry is seeing a growing need for engineers with expertise in these areas. To address this challenge, the University of Kentucky (UK) Paducah Extended Campus program entered into a collaborative effort with a local equipment provider to provide formalized instruction in the chemical and mechanical engineering programs. The UK Paducah Extended Campus is an undergraduate education-focused extension of the main campus in Lexington where undergraduate students like Maxwell Croft and Emily Burkhart (pictured in headline photo) are engaged in an innovative project.

A critical problem in educating students in the key aspects of process control is that many undergraduate engineering programs lack advanced, industry-relevant equipment as well as the expertise needed to run and maintain it. This has led to difficulty in the chemical process and allied industries in acclimating new graduates to the rigors of manufacturing and plant environments.

UK and Experitec worked together to merge technology and education through a comprehensive automation program using the existing demonstration-scale biodiesel pilot plant on the UK Paducah campus. The installation of an industrialized operating process was the missing link needed to provide a learning environment to augment the core of the engineering curriculum while fostering interaction between students and industry. Despite some specific challenges and pitfalls in establishing this joint effort, the result has been the creation of a learning environment that benefits students and local industry.

One of the specific challenges in implementing this project was the lack of technical expertise in installing and configuring the distributed control system (DCS) hardware and software on a university campus. To help mitigate this challenge, the partnership created opportunities for UK students to participate in co-op semesters. The first co-op student, Maxwell Croft, recently finished an engineering co-op as a plant performance services engineer at Experitec.

University of Kentucky Helps Students Prepare for Real World Engineering 2Figure 2. DCS operator control station for the biodiesel pilot plant created by co-op student This opportunity allowed Croft to receive formal training in configuration and implementation of DeltaV DCS, to which he supported several software development projects. Project tasks included everything from graphics and module configuration to on-site startup support and instrumentation. Croft did this while taking on the challenge of converting the UK Paducah biodiesel plant from out-of-the-box configuration to human-centered design graphics with a class-based process control system configuration standard (PCSD) derived module library. The control interface had to be developed for student use while maintaining industry standards, requiring batch-wise sequential function charts (SFCs) controlled by operator-automated responses. The DCS hardware required multiple configurations to compensate for the pilot-scale process and limited control equipment.

The process to be automated was the existing pilot plant used to convert used cooking oil from the campus cafeteria into biodiesel. This project extended the ability of the UK Paducah Campus to provide interactive, advanced process controls experience as part of the overall course curriculum for undergraduates in both the chemical and mechanical engineering departments. The installation of industrial-grade instrumentation and controls as well as a DCS and data historian system formed the foundation of this modernized program. To date, the equipment has been integrated into two courses in chemical engineering core curriculum and plans call for the development of a multidisciplinary elective in advanced process control.

University of Kentucky Helps Students Prepare for Real World Engineering 3Figure 3. UK Campus Demonstration Scale Biodiesel Pilot PlantTo achieve a successful implementation, startup support and ongoing technical assistance to ensure that the process is maintained in proper running order is a must. The result includes a fully automated pilot plant on the UK Paducah campus that affords students the opportunity to directly interact with the same kind of equipment they are likely to encounter in typical industry processes. Moving forward, students graduating from the UK Paducah Extended Campus Program will have had the opportunity to work in a control room setting and operate a typical industrial process. This is an opportunity that is not often available to students.

Global Service Learning and Engineering

Another on-campus experience for students is the Global Service Learning and Engineering program headed by Professor Jeffrey Seay. In this program, students have the opportunity to travel around the world to implement their biodiesel process.

In developing countries, state-of-the-art instrumentation and sophisticated process controls are simply not available or not practical. However, producing biodiesel does require control to ensure a quality product. Taking the lessons from the lab and the class rooms, students have taken on service learning projects related to biodiesel.

University of Kentucky Helps Students Prepare for Real World Engineering 4Figure 4. UK students (l to r) Riley Pearcy, Maxwell Croft, Emily Burkhart and Devan Buckhalter with the biodiesel processor they refurbished at the ODAM facility in Tamil Nadu, India.The first was carried out in collaboration with the African Centre for Renewable Energy and Sustainable Technology (ACREST) in the sub-Saharan African nation of Cameroon. The second was carried out in collaboration with the Organization of Development Action and Maintenance (ODAM) in the Tamil Nadu State of India. Figure 4. UK students (l to r) Riley Pearcy, Maxwell Croft, Emily Burkhart and Devan Buckhalter with the biodiesel processor they refurbished at the ODAM facility in Tamil Nadu, India.

The project in Cameroon focused on developing a grass-roots, non-automated process for producing biodiesel. This process was built using only an oil drum, used car parts and a wood fire for heat. The project in India focused on the upgrade and repair of an existing biodiesel pilot plant. The process featured several single loop controllers, but nothing as sophisticated as a PLC or DCS.

Although both processes differed greatly from the system on campus, the lessons learned translated well to the projects in less developed regions of the world. In the end, the students learned a valuable lesson, not just about process control, but also about the role that engineers play in the world.

Jeffrey Seay is associate professor of chemical engineering at the University of Kentucky, Paducah, Kentucky. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. The authors would like to gratefully acknowledge the contributions of Emerson and Experitec, specifically Chris Helbling and Bruce Wallace for making this partnership possible.  

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