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 a wide range of fields, including petrochemicals, pharma, bulk chemicals, food, or 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 Uriel Raul Fernandez Bernaola, who works as an auxiliary professor in the Chemical Engineering Department at UNSAAC, Cusco, Peru. He discusses the path that led to his career in process engineering, overcoming challenges, and the importance of his work.
Tell us a bit about your work as a process engineer.
I work as an auxiliary professor in the Chemical Engineering Department at UNSAAC, Cusco, Peru. I’m a part of the process engineering faculty and I work to help form the new generation of process engineers. I teach chemical engineering reactions, minerals processing, and environmental engineering. I am also a part of a research group that studies the adsorption of heavy metals from polluted water using biomass.
Why did you become a process engineer?
In high school, I liked chemistry, biology, mathematics, and especially algebra. I liked the idea of studying chemistry and engineering together, so I decided to apply to my school’s chemical engineering program. I started my career in a hydrometallurgical plant in southern Peru. While in Peru, I learned more about copper production, ranging from the leaching of minerals, solvent extraction, and electrowinning plants to the pure copper cathode.
Later on, I had the chance to work in an ammonium nitrate plant. It was a very interesting chemical plant because the raw materials were water and air. The main plant carried out various processes, including those that dealt with water treatment, electrolysis water, air liquefaction, ammonia synthesis, acid nitric, and ammonium nitrate production.
In Mexico, I had the opportunity to obtain my Master of Science in chemical engineering. There, I learned more about other industries like hydrocarbon refineries, and I also developed my research skills. When I came back to Peru, I decided to get into the academy, and help teach the next generation of process engineers.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in your role as a process engineer?
In the plants where I had the chance to work, I had to make my own flow sheet in order to recognize the physical position of all equipment in each plant. Following pipelines, pumps, tanks, reactors, columns, etc. It was important for me to be able to locate the equipment and coordinate with mechanical, electrical, or instrumental maintenance for when technical problems arise.
Another challenge was learning how to turn a plant on and off. It is not just as simple as pressing a button, it requires several steps to be delineated between multiple personnel working in different areas of the plant. Even though there are technical procedures, there are some challenges that one engineer has to solve at that moment as well. For example, when you run a reactor like synthesis of ammonia, the reaction has to reach an operation temperature in order to start the production. However, if you have a drop pressure in the reactor, the conversion could also drop.
As a process engineer, you need to pay attention to different scenarios, have a thorough understanding of procedures, and be able to cooperate with the plant operators.
It is not easy to have good relationships with every operator, and different specialized engineers in a plant. For that reason, a process engineer should also develop soft skills.
How is your work as a process engineer critical to your particular job assignment or industry?
For a process engineer in the academy, the university is like an industrial plant where the final product is chemical engineers. It is important to seed the fundamental principles of chemical engineering in the students, and to show them the application of process engineering in real life. It is very critical for process engineers to understand momentum, heat and mass transfer, thermodynamics, chemical engineering reactions, and how to model and re-enact those phenomena in a process or plant design. In addition, they must also consider economical evaluation, sustainability with the environment, and safety.
In the Andean zone of Peru, there is a plethora of issues related to water pollution with heavy metals. I am working with a team of researchers to discover new adsorbents and systems that could remove those metals from the water. We are studying how to increase the adsorption capacity of those new materials and fix them either in a continuous or batch system.
I am also the advisor of the AIChE student chapter UNSAAC from the Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad del Cusco, Peru (my home university). Currently, we are working with students, promoting chemical engineering in high schools, inviting process engineers from the industry to be mentors to undergraduate students, and organizing workshops to help students and anyone else interested in learning about chemical engineering.
What do you think was most important about what you did as a process engineer?
In the hydrometallurgical plant, I researched a new technology called leaching of copper concentrated at pilot level. Usually, after concentration of copper, the route is foundry and electrowinning. In this case, the route after copper concentration could be leaching and electrowinning.
In the ammonium nitrate plant, I researched the removal of NOx gas from an acid nitric plant using adsorption and absorption systems. They were packed columns fixed at the end of the process. Good results were achieved in both cases.
Finally, in the water treatment plant, a high quantity of sludge was produced during the process of softening water. We researched how to convert those sludges into lime. After the calcination process, the recovered lime was tested in the softening process again, and the removal efficiency was competitive like commercial lime.
In the academy, It is crucial that we instill process engineers with high values, and technical skills that could ultimately support the development of our country. The research in the removal of heavy metals is important because there are many social conflicts related to water pollution in our region.
New water pollution removal processes could be implemented in order to propose alternative solutions, like biosorbents. For example, I have studied using the cactus plant to remove lead from polluted water. The cactus is a plant that is used in the Andean zone where there are no drinking water plants. People from those zones clean the water using cacti. For that reason, we thought it could be applied in the removal of heavy metals. We achieved good results.
Process Engineer Perspective Talks (PEP Talks)
AIChE is launching a new series of virtual presentations called Process Engineer Perspective (PEP) Talks — which will feature perspectives of process engineers on topics relevant to other process engineers. Join us every second Thursday of the month to get to know your fellow process engineers. Attendance is free.