Meet Process Engineer Shaik Afzal

25/32   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 Shaik Afzal, a final-year PhD student at Texas A&M University. He discusses what led him to choose a career in the process engineering field, overcoming challenges, and the impact of his work. 

Tell us a bit about your experience working in oil refinery operations and process safety engineering.

After completing my undergraduate degree in chemical engineering at RV College of Engineering in India, I joined Mangalore Refinery and Petrochemicals Ltd.

The oil refinery on the west coast of India was expanding capacity by 3 million tonnes per annum by an expansion project called Phase-3. The new refinery was designed to process acidic crudes and produce high-quality fuels to meet the ever-tightening regulations.

I was in the commissioning and start-up team, so most of my time was spent on site, with rain boots and a walkie-talkie. Like a LEGO set, equipment and piping were slowly coming together to build the complex refinery.

I had the opportunity to climb in and out of furnace boxes and distillation columns while inspecting to make sure everything was installed correctly as per the design. This experience was invaluable, as once a plant is operational and everything is closed up, the next maintenance usually occurs in the next shutdown, which is 4-5 years later.

A process engineer working in an oil refinery of a small city can stand at a junction of a road and proudly say, "all of these vehicles are running on fuels that once passed through my distillation column!" Reminding ourselves of the impact our work has on so many other people keeps us satisfied and motivated in our jobs.

After receiving my master’s degree at Texas A&M University at Qatar, I joined Chiyoda Almana Engineering, an EPC company, as a loss prevention engineer.

I worked with multiple clients on process safety projects and designed several process safety systems like fire and gas detection systems, fire water networks and LNG spill containment systems.

While working on brownfield modification projects, my task was to ensure that all modifications did not compromise existing process safety systems, escape routes, etc. We used a variety of risk assessment tools to manage the identified hazards.

Why did you choose your current career path in chemical engineering?

I grew up in the Middle East, and my father worked in a urea plant in Jubail, Saudi Arabia. While passing through areas close to the sprawling industrial facilities at night, I could see the beautiful yellow and white lights inside the plants at a distance. I was curious to find out more about what was inside. When it came to choosing my major, this curiosity made chemical engineering the obvious choice!

After receiving my bachelor's degree, I knew I wanted to work in the process engineering field.  Almost every core course of chemical engineering can be applied, in some form, within a chemical plant. I was fascinated by how hand calculations done on paper could translate into large equipment in the field.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced while working in oil refinery operations and process safety engineering?

Fresh out of college, it takes a while to get used to the working style of an operating company. In universities, everything is structured and well-defined. In an operating company, you learn by doing and with training from mentors.

I firmly believe in the quote, "I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand." The best way to learn is by working. When responsibilities are assigned to you, that's perhaps the only way you will give your best. Although we had training programs for fresh graduates, the majority of my learning happened on the site, interacting with people and getting things done.

Particularly in operations, you have to deal with people at different levels – from the person tightening a bolt of an exchanger to the project manager who makes the high-level decisions. It is essential to treat every person with dignity and respect. In the pursuit of meeting deadlines, we seldom forget this basic etiquette!

While working in process safety engineering, it was about multi-tasking. Projects are usually fast-paced, so managing stress is crucial. In the initial few months, I had to take work home to read and understand the projects thoroughly before I started working on them.

Each client company has its own engineering standard, and our designs had to comply with those standards. Working within a project environment helps you learn a lot in very little time.

How was your work experience in process safety engineering and operations critical to your current career path?

In hindsight, I'm happy I took some years off after school to work. I would recommend this route if the right opportunity presents itself. Stepping away from coursework for a while helps with seeing the practical significance of things.

Process engineering is at the heart of any chemical plant. All auxiliary branches of engineering support this central discipline. Most of the other disciplines cannot start working until a process engineer puts down the estimates of what is needed.

I am currently in the final year of my PhD, and my research is of an applied nature. When I am testing a catalyst for activity and stability in a lab-scale reactor, I realize why they are so important in an industrial plant. When I am doing life cycle analysis for CO2 emissions of a process, I can remember the flare stack burning thousands of pounds of hydrocarbons, and the enormous carbon footprint of these processes.

Getting accustomed to the scale of the process variables in a plant helps to build the big picture, so you know what is significant and what is not. Using the tools I learned in graduate school, I can now revisit my industrial experience with a fresh perspective and provide much better insight than before.

What do you think is most important about being in a profession closely tied to process engineering?

Process engineering is at the heart of any chemical plant. All auxiliary branches of engineering support this central discipline. Most of the other disciplines cannot start working until a process engineer puts down the estimates of what is needed.

The goal is to produce high-quality products in an efficient and safe manner. Right from design to project to operations, everything in process engineering revolves around this goal. I think process engineers should be proud of their work as it affects so many people.

A pump or a distillation column that you design or modify will probably witness every molecule of gasoline or diesel used by a small city. A process engineer working in an oil refinery of a small city can stand at a junction of a road and proudly say, "All of these vehicles are running on fuels that once passed through my distillation column!" Reminding ourselves of the impact our work has on so many other people keeps us satisfied and motivated in our jobs.

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