Chemical Engineering students brew beer to learn chemical processes

Nov 12, 2022 | Engineering and Science, General News, Research, Students

Louisiana Tech University’s Chemical Engineering program has added a new experiment to the Senior Unit Operations Lab. The fermentation experiment is designed to help students understand biochemical reactions and as an experiment that the students would enjoy.

Many plants, including breweries and pharmaceutical plants, rely on biochemical reactions to produce goods. For this experiment, students brew beer. And no, they don’t get to drink it.

McKenzie Walker

The Unit Operations Lab serves as a mini chemical plant to give students experience managing scaled-down versions of unit operations and processes in a collaborative environment. The experiments mimic those that graduates will use in their daily jobs as chemical engineers. Junior teams and senior teams have rotating duties that give each student the opportunity to lead and perform other functions of a real-world chemical engineering plant.

Lab Instructor and Chemical Engineering Professional In Residence, Robert Newberry spent 35 years working in chemical plants and has more than two decades of plant management experience. Newberry, a graduate of Louisiana Tech’s Chemical Engineering Class of 81, says experiments like this help prepare the next generation of chemical engineers by making the processes more exciting.

“The goal of this experiment is to give students an experiment that they can learn from and have fun with at the same time. I enjoy seeing how excited they are about the new experiment.”

Abby Turner

Seniors Abby Turner of Bossier City and McKenzie Walker of Ville Platte say that the Chemical Engineering labs have helped prepare them for the hands-on applications that they’ll face in chemical plants after graduation.

“The senior lab opens many doors because it allows students to work on equipment that we will see in plants, mills, and large-scale research facilities,” Walker said. “For example, the three-story distillation tower we work on is used in almost every industry, and the knowledge we gain from using it in a safe environment will benefit us for the rest of our careers.

“The fermentation experiment furthers our knowledge of reactors and what we imagine to be reactors. In the classroom, we identify reactors as big pieces of metal that create chemicals that are non-edible. However, with the fermentation experiment, we can identify reactors used to make food and drinks. This also expands our ideas as engineers to apply reactors to different processes and for different purposes.”

“The fermentation experiment would have to be my favorite in the senior lab,” Turner added. “This was the first year the fermentation lab has been a part of the chemical engineering experiments. In this lab, we produced a Light American Ale by milling grain, boiling hops, and then fermenting the wort. A week later, we got to measure the pH, specific gravity, and ABV (alcohol by volume) of the ale to determine the success of the fermentation.”