Meet Process Engineer Michael Tanzio

2/12   in the series Meet the Process Engineers

Welcome to the latest in a series of AIChE blog posts profiling process engineers, a diverse group of professionals spanning multiple industries and regions. In this series, we aim to profile process engineers who work in fields as varied as petrochemicals, pharma, bulk chemicals, food, and any process-intensive industry.

Are you a member and process engineer interested in being profiled? We'd love to hear from you via this volunteer opportunity. Also, we hope to build an online discussion group specifically for process engineers. You can find out about both of these initiatives and join our efforts by visiting https://www.aiche.org/processengineering

This month, we introduce you to Michael Tanzio. He is a chief process engineer at Process Engineering Associates, LLC. He talks about his industrial experience in process engineering, process design, and process research and development. He also discusses overcoming specific challenges, and the importance of his work.

Tell us a bit about your work as a process engineer.

I have 44 years of industrial experience in process engineering, process design, and process research and development. After getting a B.S. degree from Drexel University and an M.S. degree from Purdue University, I went to work for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission where I worked on research programs involving the safety analysis of fast breeder nuclear reactors.

After moving back to Philadelphia, I went to work for Rohm & Haas (now Dow) helping them improve their polymethylmethacrylate process. Seizing a unique opportunity, I accepted a position with Mobil Research and Development. At Mobil, I monitored and improved their fluid catalytic crackers and helped develop their ZSM-5 catalyst.  

No matter what the job or industry, if you need a process engineer, that work is always critical. We set the basis and the operating conditions for developing emerging technologies, for improving existing processes, and for designing and building new plants.

I then went to work for Autodynamics where I developed dynamic, real-time computer models to simulate refinery and chemical process operations.  After Autodynamics, I went to work for Fluor for 15 years where I became a technical fellow with a recognized expertise in conceptual process engineering and two-phase flow. 

At Fluor, I provided technical direction to large engineering/construction capital projects and continued that role as a lead process engineer for Jacobs Engineering and then as senior technical advisor with KBR. 

Prior to my current position with Process Engineering Associates, I worked for a small startup company, Anellotech. I was responsible for process development, process engineering, and process modeling for a novel catalytic fast pyrolysis process for converting biomass into aromatic products.

In my current position, I provide process engineering consultation to a spectrum of diverse industries and technologies, including oil refining, chemicals, biomass processing, petrochemicals, energy, life sciences, and nuclear power. 

Why did you become a process engineer?

Well, growing up in South Philadelphia, I don't think I ever told my parents: "Mommy, Daddy when I grow up, I want to be a process engineer."  In fact, in college, I initially entered Drexel's civil engineering program. As a child, you could always see the beautiful buildings, large bridge structures, and amazing hydro-electric dams. But you never saw the inside of a refinery or a chemical plant. You may have smelled them, but never saw them!

After my first drafting course (back then there were no CAD systems, only a pencil, T-square, compass and eraser), I realized I was "geometrically impaired." I did not have the aptitude to visualize in 3-D the 2-D drawings being developed. I quickly changed my major to chemical engineering.

After college, I did not go to find a job as a process engineer.  Rather process engineering found me.  Accepting jobs based on personal and family priorities, I just naturally flowed into the process engineering role.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face in your role as a process engineer?

Challenges depend on function:

Process R&D
  • The biggest challenge, as I see it, is obtaining all the data required to reliably design, commercialize, and operate a process.  This requires a process design perspective by the R&D engineers, which they may not have. At the lab scale, or in a pilot plant, you can evaluate various catalysts to determine the one with the best yields. 
  • You also need the catalyst, reactant, and product's physical and safety-related properties (catalyst attrition, packed bed and fluidized bed properties; fluid heats of reaction, viscosity, surface tension, flash point, auto-ignition temperature, explosive limits and vapor pressure; potential for a runaway reaction; fluid corrosion, erosion and/or plugging propensity, etc.)
Process design 
  • Convincing the operating companies that, although they do an excellent job in operating a plant, their ability to design a new or revamped plant is limited.
  • Convincing the client not to ignore utility, offsites, and safety system design requirements during the conceptual engineering stage of a project.
  • Resolving all process issues for a project before the detailed engineering phase begins. I have never seen this occur.
Process operations
  • Despite all our high-tech tools, obtaining and properly interpreting plant data is still a major challenge for process engineers. In my experience, about 80% of all process plant problems have their origin with process hydraulics.  But how good are the plant flowmeters and pressure measurements so a reliable solution can be recommended?
  • Proper interpretation of the laws and regulations. We are process engineers—not lawyers. But much of what we do is driven by laws and regulations that are confusing and conflicting. How I interpret the law may be different than my boss's interpretation, which is different than my client's—all of which may be different than the regulators'.

How is your work as a process engineer critical to your particular job assignment or industry?

No matter what the job or industry, if you need a process engineer, that work is always critical. We set the basis and the operating conditions for developing emerging technologies, for improving existing processes, and for designing and building new plants.

What do you think is most important about what you do as a process engineer?

My major role as a process engineer is to provide a process which can safely and economically provide the required product at the required product specifications. A secondary role is, based on my chemical engineering training and process engineering experience, to be a moderating voice on technical disputes among other members of a project.

That reminds me of a joke a Fluor colleague told me sometime ago (I hope you find it as amusing as I did):

The engineering company project manager and the client project manager were in an office debating the progress of the project.

The client manager yells: "The glass is half empty!". 

The engineering manager yells back: "No, the glass is half full!"

A process engineer hears the discussion, walks into the office and offers his opinion:

"We need a smaller glass!"

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