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Chemical engineering team wins AIChE Student Design Competition


Josiah Smith, Nicholas Johnson and Nathan Dierkes pose with award presenter Douglas Ludlow from the Missouri University of Science and Technology and Chelsea Monty, chair of the AIChE Student Chapters Committee after winning AIChE’s Student Design Competition. From left: Monty, Smith, Johnson, Dierkes, Ludlow. Photo courtesy of Matthew Bernards.

Josiah Smith’s first instinct was to make sure he wasn’t being ribbed.

It wasn’t until he visited the appropriate website and made sure the other email addresses checked out that he realized the truth: He and then-fellow chemical engineering seniors Nathan Dierkes and Nick Johnson had won the American Institute of Chemical Engineers [AIChE] Student Design Competition — team division — and with it, the $600 William Cunningham Award.

“I thought, ‘Well, these are the right people to CC [on the email], so if someone’s trying to goof with us, they checked well,’” Smith, now a graduate student at MU, quipped.

The rules of the competition dictated that the team had 30 days and only their combined skills to rely on to arrive at a novel solution to this year’s problem, titled “Alternate Technology for Sour Water Stripping.” Students in Assistant Professor Matthew Bernards’ “Analysis, Synthesis and Design” capstone course are required to participate in the annual contest as part of the course, and Bernards chose the trio’s project from a field of 19 to represent MU.

“Essentially, sour water is typically produced at a refinery and contains hydrogen sulfide and ammonia,” Bernards said. “And the problem statement was to compare removing the ammonia and H2S, using air or natural gas, from water so you have extremely pure water.”

The MU team began working on the project by first extensively researching current techniques for sour water stripping and then building a foundation of knowledge before experimenting on ways to improve upon existing technologies. Smith said the team modeled the problem and came up with a set of potential solutions that maximized clean water, flow rate and economic considerations.

The final deadline was in June, and after finishing the projects and collecting their bachelor’s degrees, the trio moved on with life as they waited for the results. Smith started graduate school, Dierkes took a job as a technical resource manager with French’s Food Company, and Johnson began working in water and wastewater treatment for the consulting firm Burns & McDonnell. As all that was going on, so too was the judging process, and upon receiving the news, Smith notified his teammates.

“When I saw that we had won, I didn’t really know what to think. I’m pretty sure that after we turned that project in, we never expected to hear about it again, let alone win the competition,” Dierkes said.

All three team members said their chemical engineering coursework leading up to the capstone class gave them a solid foundation to build on before tackling the challenge posed by the competition, including the short time frame.

“To an extent, we were a little prepared for that,” Smith said with a wry grin. “Dr. Bernards likes to give difficult projects on a short time scale already, so it wasn’t the first time we had a similar time frame on a similar project.”

Bernards deflected the credit, pointing out how well the Chemical Engineering Department as a whole does preparing students step-by-step for successes like this one. He added that it was a testament to the students and the department that a trio of MU undergraduates produced such an impressive result.

“No first place was given in the individual competition this year because the company [that submitted the problem statement] felt nobody sufficiently addressed the safety and environmental concerns,” Bernards said. “So to have our team actually do that sufficiently really tells us we’re doing the right things.”

After transitioning to the workforce, Johnson said the projects from the capstone class and this student design competition in particular closely mirrored the work he currently does in industry.

“The same occurs in consulting, where scheduling and quick delivery of projects have huge impacts on financials and can often be the difference between becoming a client’s first choice for future projects or losing them as a customer,” he said.