Man, it’s been a while since I last blogged. I’ve been a bit hosed, to say the least. I’ve also been out of town quite a bit thanks to the Navy. The good news is that I now know what I’m doing after I graduate. But that’s another story for another blog entry.
What am I going to tell you about today? ICE. And I don’t mean solid water. From the subject listing and schedule:
10.490: Integrated Chemical Engineering
Presents and solves chemical engineering problems in an industrial context, with applications varying by semester. Emphasis on the integration of fundamental concepts with approaches of process design. Emphasis on problems that demand synthesis, economic analysis, and process design.
P. I. Barton, G. J. McRae, B. S. Johnston
Every major at MIT has a course that’s famously hard. For aero/astro majors, it’s “Unified Engineering,” which they simply call Unified. For computer scientists, it’s “Laboratory in Software Engineering,” also know as “Java Death Lab.” For physicists, it’s “Experimental Physics I and II,” shortened to “J-lab” (an abbreviation of Junior Lab, as it’s most often taken in the junior year.) And as you could’ve guessed, for course 10 majors like myself, it’s Integrated Chemical Engineering, which we shorten to ICE (because we’re so cool.)
ICE is a capstone senior design course. The idea is simple, and I think it’s a good one. ICE is a synthesis of all the chemical engineering topics you’ve learned: mass and energy balances, thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, heat and mass transfer, reaction engineering, and if you get lucky maybe even some cell biology and biological engineering. To “prove your worth” to the department and earn a degree, you’re asked to use your expertise to tackle a realistic, complex problem.
It sounds cool, and it actually kind of is. Our project this year was the production of Lucretex, a valuable silicon-based organometallic polymer (the course instructors are so witty). Our company, Diversified Chemical Processes, was in competition with CalTech Industries to produce 310,000 lbs of Lucretex for the cheapest price. CalTech could do it for $9/lb. For the project to be successful, we had to beat them.
ICE is fairly open-ended. There are a few psets early in the term, and then you have the rest of your time to work on the project. Unfortunately, because my entire team was really busy most of the time, we didn’t start working on the project until last Saturday. It was due on Wednesday.
What’d we do to finish on time below $9/lb? It took a lot of work. I pulled 3 all-nighters in a row. 72 hours straight. Three days can be a long time. Before you all freak out, what I did was very uncommon and is the result of having ROTC in addition to waiting until the last minute for my ICE project. But I’m telling you the story like it is, because that’s what you deserve.
We approached the problem like this: We’d come up with a processing scheme, say three reactions and three separations. We’d optimize each process, and then we’d optimize the entire string of processes as a whole. Then we’d do all the calculations to figure out cost, waste, production rate, etc.
We went through countless arrangement of reactors and distillation columns, but nothing worked. We always got between $12 and $16 per pound. It got around to Tuesday night and we still weren’t any closer. Morale was low.
At around 3:30 AM I took a 30 minute nap on the floor of the lounge. Far too soon, my partner Joe woke me up.
“Boone, wake up. We need your help.”
“Huh?” *wipes drool off face*
“We can’t figure this out.”
In my sleepy haze I grabbed the marker from him and went to the dry erase board. I started writing. What came out was another process scheme. More complicated, but it showed promise. There was tension in the room.
“Boone, do you think this will work?”
“I don’t know.”
“We only have time to calculate one more process. And if it’s not below $9/lb, we lose.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“What do you think?”
I thought for a second. “Let’s do it.”
We took a huge gamble. I had no idea if what I’d written down would work. I was half asleep when I wrote it. Faith is hard to come by around here, but I stockpile it for situations like these.
We worked on into the morning, taking naps in shifts.
Finally, we got to the end of the process. Julianna plugged all the operation parameters into our master spreadsheet and read out the final cost: $8.07 per pound.
We were all ecstatic. Joe and I immediately got up and started dancing. Julianna doesn’t dance much, but we could tell she was happy too.
We wrote up the project quickly, and turned it in at 2:56 PM, four minutes before it was due. And then we took a team photo:
Joe ’08, Me, Julianna ’08
MIT gets tougher and tougher every year, but I won this battle. You’ll win your battles too, no matter how poor the odds seem. I slept like a rock for 2 nights straight, and woke up today better than ever.
So until next time, everyone
Take it easy.