Chemical Engineering? Dr. Mayuresh Kothare Provides Insight

Mayuresh Kothare with his PhD thesis from Caltech: “Control of Systems Subject to Constraints”

As the holidays grow closer, families do too, sitting around the fire, enjoying meals, and watching movies. In my case however, “family bonding” came through sitting down with my father, Dr. Mayuresh Kothare, to do what nerds do and share our passion for science! Through our discussion, I gained a greater appreciatioin of the fact that my father’s work is AWESOME :) If you are anything like me whose fascination for science and engineering know no bounds, read below to find out what chemical and biomolecular engineering are and how they continue to change our world!

What is your position at Lehigh Univeristy?

My position is Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Lehigh University. I also hold a joint appointment as Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and have an affiliate appointment in the Department of Bioengineering.

What do chemical engineers do? What is the overlap with biomolecular engineering?

Chemical engineers use principles from physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics along with systems engineering design to transform a range of raw materials to high quality and profitable final products. We sometimes call this “molecular transformation” of raw materials to products. The variety of products that chemical engineers can produce is huge — fuels, petroleum products, high purity gases, proteins, food products, new medicines, semi-conductors, polymers, pulp and paper,minerals, metals, alloys, etc.

The overlap with biomolecular engineering comes from the fact that we use biological principles to transform a biological raw material to a final biological product.

Biomolecular and Chemical Engineering overlap: Flow diagram of corn biorefining to produce ethanol: https://www.e-education.psu.edu/egee439/node/673

Examples include production of vaccines, anti-biotics, food proteins, etc. which require knowledge of “biomolecular” transformation to convert raw materials to products. As a result of this broad training, chemical engineers can very easily adapt to studying and managing natural and man-made manufacturing systems.

For example, the human body can be considering a chemical manufacturing plant — it takes raw material — food we eat — and through a series of molecular transformation, coverts it to proteins, carbohydrates, enzymes, etc. for the human body to grow and function normally. This is where chemical engineers connect with “biomolecular” engineering.

What is process systems control and applied mathematics?

Flow Diagram of vinyl acetate process: Chemical engineers use mathematical model to predict reactions and design plants for reactions: https://www.mdpi.com/2227-9717/3/3/619/htm

Process control is the discipline of developing concepts that allow design of automatic control systems for safe and profitable operation of chemical processes.

Applied Mathematics is the use of mathematical methods to develop descriptions of engineering systems in the form of mathematical equations. These mathematicalequations are then used to design and test automatic controllers. For example, we can think of a flight simulator as a “mathematical model” of an airplane which can be used to improve the operation of the airplane and its design.

Please describe your journey through science: how you were inspired to pursue it?

Biggest Inspiration: My father and I visiting his alma mater Caltech

I was inspired much more by engineering than by science in my childhood. What excited me from early childhood was the power of building and creating new things from an understanding of basic science. This is the essence of engineering — the ability to create new things, solve complex problems, using tools from basic science, mathematics and design. My father was an electrical engineer and worked in a nuclear power plant. While the basic principles are nuclear physics are well-established, it takes enormous skills in engineering to design and safely operate a nuclear plant to reliably produce power. So this was my inspiration to pursue engineering, to be able to solve large and complex problems — in this process, I realized that one needs to have a mastery of basic science but one needs to go beyond just understanding where science stops to using science to solve new problems using an engineering mindset.

What does your academic research revolve around and what are some practical applications?

My area of research is automatic control — this area of research covers development of technology for automatically controlling the operation of natural and engineered systems.

A simple example is controlling room temperature in your home. If the room temperature becomes low, then automatically the heating systems blows hot air in the room to raise the temperature. Similarly, in summer, when the room temperature becomes high, the cooling system automatically blows cold air into the room to cool down the air. This is an example of an automatic control system for maintaining room temperature without any human intervention. Automatic control systems are ubiquitous — water heater temperature controller, speed control in a car using “cruise control”, regulation of heart rate using an automatic pacemaker, etc. are some of the many many examples of automatic control systems.

Chemical Engineering applications iin biology: Process control systems govern diverse phenomena, from homeostasis to teechnological innovation: https://www.thinglink.com/scene/581179095899963394

There are also automatic control systems naturally occurring in nature — the human body is able to automatically regulate body temperature within a normal range, blood sugar and blood pressure in a normal range, maintain vertical body posture, etc. This naturally occurring automatic control system in the human body is called homeostasis. When this human control system fails, you fall sick — high blood pressure, high body glucose, fever, etc. are examples of such failed human control systems.

I teach these concepts of automatic control in a class for chemical engineers. For this class, I mainly focus on how chemical plants can be automatically controlled — what are the techniques to design controllers for a refinery, how to install controllers using hardware and computer software, etc. I also teach a class on modeling of the brain and neural systems where I introduce the ideas of control by considering the brain and the central nervous system as the “automatic controller” for all human functions.

Please describe two of your research projects that you feel have been most impactful (in concept or application)?

Former PhD and post-doc students Rama Rao and Matthew Urich, collaborator Professor Srivaji Sircar, and Dr. Kothare created the optimized oxygen tank pictured above

In one research project, we are studying the design of a novel portable medical oxygen production device by taking air as raw material which contains nitrogen and oxygen, and separating high purity oxygen as a products. This is a classic chemical engineering example of a “molecular” transformation/separation of a raw material (air) to a high value product (medical oxygen). The basic mechanism of separation of oxygen is the use of a material called “zeolite” which holds back nitrogen from air, giving you high purity oxygen. In addition to the engineering design challenges in building this complex and portable device, we also have to design an automatic controller that can maintain consistent oxygen purity and flow rate.

Vagus Nerve: https://medlineplus.gov/ency/imagepages/19252.htm

In a second project, we are studying how an automatic implantable stimulator can be developed to serve as a “pace maker” for regulating heart rate and blood pressure in humans. This is done by stimulating the vagus nerve with electrical impulses. We are developing a mathematical model of the entire cardiovascular system in the form of equations. We will first make sure that this mathematical model is an accurate representation of the cardiac system. Then we will us this model to develop an automatic controller that will measure the heart rate and blood pressure and provide electrical pulses to the vagus nerve to automatically maintain the heart rate and blood pressure at desired values.

How do you incorporate multiple areas of science into your work?

Almost any real-life problem that we encounter involves an interplay between different areas of expertise. For example, in the oxygen device project, there is an interplay of chemical engineering (separations), material science (zeolite material handling, metal strength, etc.), electrical engineering (electronic hardware, digital measurements), mechanical engineering (compressors, flow valves), software engineering (computer programs for collecting data), applied mathematics (data analysis, mathematical models).

So even a seemingly simple application requires us to integrate solutions from multiple areas of science and engineering.

Besides intelligence and imagination, what are three other most important characteristics to have as an engineer ?

Lehigh University’s Chemical Engineering Graduate Students: https://engineering.lehigh.edu/chbe

Some times, people refer to these three characteristics as the 3 C’s of engineering — curiosity, creativity, and ability to make connections between different disciplines.

All of these characteristics have to come together to develop the engineering mindset to solve complex problems.

How has technological innovation changed the fields of chemical and biomolecular engineering over the last two decades? What does the future hold for these two field of study?

This year, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was won by a Chemical Engineer — Professor Frances Arnold from the Department of Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). This tells you a lot about the impact of Chemical Engineering, not just in engineering, but also in the sciences in general.

The last two decades have seen extraordinary innovations that have enabled the discovery and commercial production of a range of new products — bio-compatible and biodegradable polymers, new medicines/vaccines, new bio-fuels, novel soft materials/gels, new catalytic materials for efficient energy production, etc.

The list goes on — the future holds great promise for the discipline of chemical and biomolecular engineering.

What is the most challenging aspect of research and what are some problems you have come across through the years?

Making breakthroughs in research requires patience, persistence and dedication. Not everything goes as planned in a research endeavor and I have always found that one must enjoy the experience of searching for solutions and with time, the breakthrough results will come. But there is no short-cut to doing high quality research. If one realizes that, then one can avoid disappointment and take joy in the discovery process.

What advice do you have for students who are interested in science?

Dr. Kothare instructing in Lehigh’s laboratories: https://engineering.lehigh.edu/chbe

Engineering and engineering science is a very fulfilling profession. It provides a lifetime of stimulating challenges and opportunities to continuously learn in a rapidly evolving field. The job prospects for engineers are exceptionally good — so one can look forward to a lifetime of satisfying work experience with strong and stable salaries. If solving problems, continuously learning new scientific principles and being creative in new scenarios are your interests, then a career in science and engineering is for you.

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