Chemical Engineering Students Win First Place in National Design Competition

October 2009 By

OXFORD, Miss. - Teamwork and time have turned a trio of University of Mississippi chemical engineering majors into prize-winning troubleshooters in a national student competition.

Joey Parkerson of French Camp, Christopher Turbeville of Southaven and Michael McClure of Vicksburg - all seniors last spring - took first place in the Team Division of the 2009 American Institute of Chemical Engineers National Design Contest. The UM group beat competitors from 34 other universities, including five-time champion Oklahoma State University and two-time champions Michigan State University, Northeastern University and Washington University.

Other previous winners include Mississippi State University, the University of Toledo, Columbia University and the University of Utah.

"This is a great achievement for us, the chemical engineering department, the School of Engineering and the University of Mississippi as a whole," said Parkerson, a hypergolic propulsion systems engineer for NASA's Kennedy Space Center. "It is especially rewarding for us to have won first place the very first year that we competed."

All entrants worked on the same problem: Design the highest-yielding, lowest-cost process for converting corn into butanol, a biofuel that may be used in an internal combustion engine. Butanol generally is more environmentally friendly and yields more energy than ethanol.

Teams had one month to research and complete their proposals by the May 31 deadline.

"The three of us started planning our strategy before we even knew what the problem was," said McClure, a business development manager at Desiccare in Jackson. "No one can do a project like this without making a lot of assumptions going in. Actually winning depends upon how good your assumptions are and how well you present the whole design."

From problem presentation to solution proposal submission, the UM team labored long hours, all while maintaining class schedules and extracurricular activities.

"We found this to be a very challenging experience," said Turbeville, a process engineer at ExxonMobil in Beaumont, Texas. "In addition to all the preliminary and subsequent research, we must have redesigned the draft at least 10 times in the 30 days we worked on it."

"Still, because we're such good friends, it really wasn't like working at all."

Following the trio's entry in the national competition, they submitted the same proposal in the AIChE Mid-South Regional Design Competition. Possibly a predictor of the national victory that came this fall, UM triumphed over both Mississippi State University and Christian Brothers University.

"That was the first time we won the regional competition since I've been here," Parkerson said. "Our chemical engineering program maybe smaller than our competitors, but by winning first place we're proving we're just as good or better."

"These students put an enormous amount of time into this," said Peter Sukanek, professor of chemical engineering and faculty adviser for the campus AIChE chapter. "They spent literally many hours every day, night and weekend during the 30 day-period finding the data needed and making their calculations and evaluations. Their final product is excellent and is a testament to the ability of these three individuals."

Parkerson, who is completing his final courses this semester, said he is looking forward to reuniting with Turbeville and McClure Nov. 7 at the annual AIChE Student Convention in Nashville to make their presentation and accept their $600 prize.

Though the prize money is nice, the three agree that gaining recognition for themselves and the chemical engineering department is the true reward.

"Our win wouldn't have been possible had it not been for the great instruction that we received from the faculty in our department," McClure said. "This honor is as much theirs as it is ours."

As the green movement gains momentum and the auto industry continues its shift to biofuels, a processing plant such as the proposed one may someday be built.

"Right now it's just not profitable, but who knows what the future holds?" Parkerson said. "If some company does undertake such a project, maybe our design could possibly be a springboard for their own research and construction endeavors," Parkerson said. For each year's student competition, engineers from a designated company design and judge a problem that typifies a real chemical engineering design situation. AIChE is the world's leading organization for chemical engineering professionals, with nearly 40,000 members in 93 countries.

"The competition is open to every one of the 190 departments of chemical engineering in the United States," said Richard Long, chair of the AIChE design subcommittee. "The problem's solution requires a wide range of skills in calculation and evaluation of both technical data and economic factors."

For more information about the UM Department of Chemical Engineering, visit engineering.olemiss.edu/chemical or call 662-915-7023. For more information about the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, visit aiche.org.

Trio to accept award Nov. 7 in Nashville