Meet Process Engineer Rasika Nimkar

20/20   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 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. Please also check out our online discussion group specifically for process engineers. You can find out about these initiatives and join our efforts by visiting https://www.aiche.org/processengineering.

This month, we introduce you to Rasika Nimkar, who is currently a client success consultant at OLI Systems, Inc. She discusses her motivation, overcoming challenges, and the importance of being a process engineer.  

At my Young Scientists competition’s last stage for the gold medal, they asked me, "Who do want to become when you grow up?" My answer: genetic engineer. I did win that gold medal and felt empowered to pursue my goal to continue studying science. My parents’ mantra for me was that girls can do anything!

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

I came to the United States from India to pursue my master’s degree in chemical engineering in 2010. As a part of my graduate co-op work, I chose to go to Singapore at Nanyang Technological University to work on process modeling and scale up of a photo-bio reactor. That work was incredibly interesting, and it got me curious about mathematical modeling.

Part of that work was proposing a mathematical model to identify reaction kinetics parameters for the photobioreactor by considering the photoelectric equations and the geometric structure of the reactor itself. The parameters then were going to be used to scale up the photobioreactor. I used the MATLAB optimization tool to do those regressions, and it taught me the power of process modeling and simulation.

This interest further intensified after I joined OLI Systems, Inc. as a technical support engineer in March 2013. OLI is a process simulation software company with a focus on electrolyte thermodynamics. I found out that I loved solving engineering problems that our clients were facing. I kept inventing creative ways to answer their questions and was determined to give them the best experience they would ever have while using a very specialized chemical software.

Now I work as a client success consultant. In my role, I consult with a broad range of clients on industry-specific process modeling and simulation applications in oil and gas, metals and mining, chemicals, power generation, water treatment and academia.  I like to think that I have a good understanding and skill set in process modeling and simulation applied to chemical processes as well as electrolyte and water chemistry applications.

One of my proudest moments is when University of Tennessee (Knoxville) Professor Robert Counce, who is also an OLI client, published a peer reviewed journal paper titled “H3PO4 Production Process Utilizing Phosphatic Clay as Feed Material” and I was a co-author on that work as a part of my consulting application at OLI. Seeing my name as a co-author was a great source of motivation to keep doing good work for my clients and fellow chemical engineers.

The main rule I stand by is that bad input equals bad output. I work with my clients to make sure that they are putting accurate inputs in the OLI software program. One of the ways to work with that is to optimize the simulation to represent a real-world system; modeling and simulation, however, can be tricky when all the parameters are not available.

Why did you become a process engineer?

This is an interesting story. I have always wanted to be an engineer, though I was not sure exactly what type. That answer varied from time to time. My main inspiration is my father. He did his Ph.D. in physical chemistry, but he always wanted to be a chemical engineer. He continually encouraged me to be curious, and as a result, I had my own chemistry lab at home when I was 10 years old. My path to science was pretty much set by the time I was in 9th grade.

While on the path to be more involved in scientific extracurricular activities, I participated in a “Homi Bhabha Young Scientist” competition in India in the 9th grade. It took place in a town near Mumbai, called Thane. That was around the time when Dolly, the cloned sheep, had taken the world by storm. So naturally, I was very much interested in biotechnology.

At my Young Scientists competition’s last stage for the gold medal, they asked me, "who do want to become when you grow up?" My answer: genetic engineer. I did win that gold medal and felt empowered to pursue my goal to continue studying science. My parents’ mantra for me was that girls can do anything!

Eventually when the time came to choose an engineering stream, I consulted with an MIT Chemical Engineering graduate and he advised me to go for chemical engineering as it was a broader field and it would provide me the breadth of strong fundamentals that I would need to pursue any specialization of my choice. My parents and I believed that to be good advice, and now here I am, a process engineer!

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

The biggest challenge I face in my role is the mismatch between real life plant data and the results of the simulation. Mathematical modeling and simulation are very powerful tools when utilized correctly but can give disastrous results if applied incorrectly.

The main rule I stand by is that bad input equals bad output. I work with my clients to make sure that they are putting accurate inputs in the OLI software program. One of the ways to work with that is to optimize the simulation to represent a real-world system; modeling and simulation, however, can be tricky when all the parameters are not available.

Process simulation is pretty much a black box and it depends a lot on the insight-driven results that a process engineer can achieve. This is exactly why this tool is very effective in the hands of engineers and experts.

There is a lack of rigorously modeled data when it comes to certain physical and thermodynamic properties. Scaling up a process with missing physical properties can make it worse. Process simulations can be helpful, but clients may not always want to run their process through a rigorous simulation due to the sheer amount of time it can take to converge to a solution like a distillation column or a recycle setup. I try my best to work with my clients to show them the value of simulation and modeling and how it can help their workflow.

One of the most important things I do is work towards creating sustainable processes. I envision doing this work via the accurate modeling and simulation of the process and making modeling tools more accessible to all process engineers.

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

In the process simulation industry, there are a lot of tools available to a process engineer. It is important to choose the right tool based on the application. I joined OLI as a technical support engineer in the client success and support team. My primary responsibility involved providing application support in the use of OLI software products, testing the OLI software in both its standalone and alliance partner version, i.e., Aspen Plus, Aspen HYSYS, PRO/II and UniSim Design.

I also performed and debugged advanced process simulation studies. My role has now evolved to be a client success consultant. I bring in my chemical engineering knowledge to address client simulation problems. Some of my main tasks include working with clients to define the necessary improvements, bug fixes, and future projects, as well as relaying feedback to the OLI software development team to ensure clients’ success. I like to think of my assignments as “technology neutral” and using the right chemistry mindset to solve the true scientific questions.

OLI’s one-of-a-kind technology is a critical component in today’s simulation and modeling software. By adding electrolytes to a flowsheet simulator, OLI can deliver the most comprehensive and accurate insights right to your fingertips. Now, using OLI technology for any simulator, you can model a wide variety of process applications like lithium extraction, desalter pH efficiency, ionic dew point, and salt point in refinery overhead applications and much more.

OLI’s approach analyzes phase changes, indicating when ions will precipitate, crystallize or vaporize. Many clients use OLI software to understand the phase behavior of complicated systems. The 2019 databanks have up-to-date chemistries for multiple “difficult to model” chemical and thermophysical systems like ZnS, PbS and CaSO4 mercaptans.

This positions OLI to accelerate process design innovation, empowering process engineers to simulate processes as well as delivering optimized solutions for water chemistry based industrial applications that enhance engineering productivity, operational efficiency and sustainability while mitigating risk for virtually any chemical system. This type of work is critical in the process simulation and modeling industry.

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

I work with a lot of water treatment applications. I like to believe in the vision of OLI’s VP of Sales, Pat McKenzie. Pat believes that OLI can help the world improve the water quality and ensure a clean water supply for everyone. To that end, our company has this revolutionary first principles thermodynamics-based unit operation in the process simulation software called the Reverse Osmosis block. It is a disruptive, groundbreaking development for the company as it is a vendor-neutral unit operation block which can simulate the number of vessels, elements, and permeate recovery percentage very accurately while making sure that the ions are balanced in the water chemistry system.

One of the most important things I do is work towards creating sustainable processes. I envision doing this work via the accurate modeling and simulation of the process and making modeling tools more accessible to all process engineers.

Here, Rasika is pictured enjoying the view of the Washington Monument in D.C.

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