Professor's Paper on Process Development Featured on Cover of Chemical Engineering Process

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By Andrew Wyder

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When Sohail Murad, chair of the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Illinois Institute of Technology, learned that industry partners were looking for chemical engineers who are trained in process development, rather than the tradition track of process design, he recognized an opportunity.

Nearly all of the chemical engineering programs in the United States, according to research Murad has done, focus on process design. In Murad's mind, that provided an opportunity for Illinois Tech to become a hub for process engineering.

A multi-step process was then started, beginning with developing an industry university cooperative research center through the National Science Foundation and creating a short course on process development that was planned to be available in spring 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Murad says the final piece to establishing Illinois Tech as a center for process development was showing the chemical engineering community how it would do that. Along with Frank Zhu, a professional engineer at Honeywell UOP, Murad co-authored a paper titled “Improve Process Development with Molecular Analysis,” which was published in Chemical Engineering Process.

“The whole point was, if you’re going to set up the center, let’s establish us as being someone who’s doing that,” Murad says. “We contacted this magazine called Chemical Engineering Progress. It’s the flagship magazine of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. And we said that we want to write an article on the importance of process development from a fundamental molecular point of view. That’s the goal of our center. And they said that's really a very interesting topic.”

Process design is, essentially, the idea that engineers already have the process or system in mind, so they simply design a plan, according to Murad. Process development is, as Murad says, when an engineer has “20 different choices, for example, and you have the ability to pick any of those choices that you want. And then starting from lab scale, how do you take it all the way up to the commercial stage?” Process development trains engineers to build the process or system from the ground up.

The paper Murad and Zhu wrote was chosen as the cover story for the August 2020 edition of CEP, which is received by more than 38,000 professionals.

The article examined Illinois Tech’s proposed molecular analysis focus of process development.

“Current methods of process synthesis are mainly based on macroscopic analysis and do not exploit microscopic effects at the molecular level. These methods are largely incapable of leading to breakthroughs in process development,” Murad and Zhu wrote. “This article describes a new method of process synthesis based on novel molecular analysis. This method identifies the best molecular transformation routes by optimizing reaction pathways (chemistry), catalyst (material), and process design (engineering).”

The process for turning Illinois Tech into a hub for process development is ongoing. Upon learning of industry's desire for chemical engineers trained in process development from Darsh Wasan, the vice president for international affairs and Distinguished Motorola Professor of Chemical Engineering at Illinois Tech, Murad met with industry contacts and companies to get their feedback.

What he heard from those companies has given Murad reason to be optimistic moving forward.

“The first goal is to set up the industry university cooperative research center. If that works out well, we can also go to the next step, which is an engineering research center,” Murad says. “Of course, we can't go to the next step right away. But we’ve had Zoom calls with three or four companies, and they say they’re very interested in it. They say the timing is right. [They say] you’ve got a good idea, so, personally, we are very excited about it.”