Meet Process Engineer Brent Sherman

13/18   in the series Meet the Process Engineers

Welcome to the latest in a series of 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 diverse 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 just launched 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 Brent Sherman. He is a Senior Process Engineer at The Dow Chemical Company. He talks about his journey to becoming a process engineer, and the challenging but rewarding aspects of working in separations.

I’ll never forget seeing the first internal I designed go from paper, to the shop, and then to the field. It’s also great to see that moment of realization in a new engineer’s eyes when she realizes how the thing you are teaching works in her tower, or when a guideline you wrote comes back to you through an email chain.

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

I am a member of the separations expertise area, which is a subset of the larger Dow Chemical process engineering community. I’m fortunate to work with a variety of businesses and sites at Dow, which presents unique challenges. I work on small scale separations, large scale separations, coarse splits, fine splits, and everything in between.

I also work on new designs, troubleshooting, expansions, and revamps. For instance, one day, I’m working on a small batch still that has a very loose product specification, while the next, I’m working on a C2 splitter that processes orders of magnitude more feed to very tight specifications.

Although project support is the bread and butter of my work, my side tasks include working on developing new guidelines, evaluating new technologies, training new engineers, and inspecting tower internals during turnarounds.

I’ll never forget seeing the first internal I designed go from paper, to the shop, and then to the field. It’s also great to see that moment of realization in a new engineer’s eyes when she realizes how the thing you are teaching works in her tower, or when a guideline you wrote comes back to you through an email chain.

Why did you become a process engineer?

I never thought I’d be a process engineer and actually figured I would go into R&D starting in my junior year of undergrad. I initially became interested in chemical engineering back in high school. My uncle would send me industry clippings and tell me stories about his work at various refineries.

I gave it more serious thought when I wrote a college scholarship essay for the Missouri Society of Professional Engineers about my future career (Sorry MO PE society, but it looks like I won’t be becoming a professor). At Washington University in St. Louis, I studied chemical engineering and became involved with undergraduate research.

The summer before my junior year, I was working at a summer internship with a small company running experiments to develop a product for a new market. I found the work very interesting, and I realized that my boss had a masters, and the head of R&D had a PhD. So, if I wanted to lead R&D someday, I too, would need a PhD.

This lead me to seek a PhD, which I received from The University of Texas at Austin in 2016. I knew I did not want to go the academic route, so I applied to industry jobs. Dow invited me to interview for a unique program where PhD graduates go into process engineering rather than R&D.

I didn’t understand the concept, as I did not have a good idea what process engineering was at the time. However, I liked the people and what I understood about the work, so I said yes, and I have no regrets.

Outside of work, Brent enjoys scuba diving. This photo was taken by his wife, Lynn Li.

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

Most challenges I face fall into one of two categories: technical or organizational. Technical challenges come in the form of learning new separation technology or applying existing technology to a challenging case, such as high purity, fouling, working with many unknowns, or all three and more.

Working on tower revamps, I’ve had the challenge of working with old, illegible drawings and having to piece together the salient details from various clues scattered across documentation.

In my work, I try to be as efficient as possible and reduce wasted energy and materials at every step. Operating in a sustainable manner is important for industry and the world.

Organizational challenges usually involve some miscommunication. If you have the right message but are telling the wrong person, then nothing will happen, as I’ve learned from my mistakes. Working a turnaround takes both of these challenges and adds time pressure on top.

Discovery work always means dealing with some degree of unknowns and having technical solutions prepared, but there will always be an unexpected issue that requires thinking on your feet.

At that time, not only do you have to come up with a feasible solution, but you need to communicate with the different stakeholders to ensure that all are aligned on the solution. Sometimes the answer is to not fix an issue and to just live with it. So the best technical solution isn’t always the best solution.

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

My work is critical to Dow Chemical because separations accounts for at least half of a plant’s capital and operating expenses. This means that cost-efficient separation schemes can decide whether or not a project is profitable.

When I specify the equipment and review the detailed design, the choices I make are choices the plant will have to live with for years. These choices affect not just product quality and production, but also safety.

For industry at large, it is important to recognize that distillation consumes 3% of all energy produced. In the United States, that number is close to 7%. Even incremental improvements to energy efficiency can have a large impact when multiplied across all the towers.

It is critical to continue to seek improvements over existing technology through increasing process intensification and using state-of-the-art technology.

In my work, I try to be as efficient as possible and reduce wasted energy and materials at every step. Operating in a sustainable manner is important for industry and the world.

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

The single most important thing is keeping all aspects of the process in mind to ensure that the project goals are safely met. As an engineer, we’re working with multiple abstract simulations that all lose something in translation.

Looking at a process in a process simulator is easy. Thinking through all the aspects neglected is much harder.

Off-design operation, start-up, shutdown, process dynamics, and fouling can be neglected in the simulation, but cannot be neglected in reality. Keeping these in mind goes hand in hand with understanding the project goals from a business perspective.

Connect with Brent on AIChE Engage

Join the Process Engineering Discussion Community

Learn More