Meet Process Engineer Isabel Pazmiño-Mayorga

50/50   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 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 aiche.org/process-engineers.

This month, we introduce you to Isabel Pazmiño-Mayorga, a doctoral researcher at the University of Manchester. She discusses the path that led to her career in process engineering, overcoming challenges, and the importance of her work. 

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

My first experience as a process engineer took place when I was undertaking my thesis work for my undergraduate degree at the largest oil refinery in Ecuador, Refinería Esmeraldas. I was fortunate to have as my tutor an experienced former superintendent at the refinery who was involved during the plant commissioning. My work involved analyzing historical data, sampling, lab testing and simulation of the visbreaking unit to valorize middle distillates.

There were operational issues in a three-phase separator that flooded frequently due to an excess production of middle distillates that could not be disposed properly. The lab tests allowed me to find potential suitable destinations for these relatively light hydrocarbons. The simulation demonstrated that the available columns and pumps were able to handle new operating conditions to remove them from a distillation column.

Once I graduated from Escuela Politécnica Nacional in Quito, Ecuador, I started a position as a new product development engineer in a cement company. I worked within the marketing and optimization teams. My work involved coordinating industrial trials for new product development and the benchmark program. Together with the technical customer service manager, we standardized and improved the benchmark program, introducing new tests and using data to direct the efforts towards the development of new products.

Currently, I’m working towards my PhD in chemical engineering at the University of Manchester, where I’m developing a methodology for the synthesis of advanced reactive distillation technologies. 

Why did you become a process engineer?

I’ve been fortunate to have experienced a vast range of roles as a chemical engineer in industry (oil refining, cement production), in research (extractive metallurgy, biodiesel hydrotreating, process intensification) and in academia as a lecturer (biochemical, food and petrochemical engineering). My work has involved lab-based and computer-aided work. I believe that using novel tools and methods to strengthen skills is a continuous activity within the process engineering profession.

Later on, I decided to pursue my PhD at the Centre for Process Integration at the University of Manchester, developing methodologies for process intensification that enable a more structured workflow at the early stages of process design.  

Teaching has certainly been a fantastic opportunity to transfer my knowledge and experience to aspiring young engineers, and contribute to society and the chemical and manufacturing industry.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in your role as a process engineer?

The biggest challenge I encountered when working in an oil refinery was that the information was spread across different areas and platforms, which did not allow finding correlations and patterns. That’s why data is becoming a company’s biggest asset. However, data without structure is not useful. Therefore, there is an increased push for introducing data science and data analytics in chemical industries.

Another challenge I faced as a recent graduate in my first job was gaining respect and trust from experienced operators, especially when trying to push new projects or implementing updates to standard procedures to meet new targets or specifications. 

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

My role as a doctoral researcher is to enable new opportunities for exploring intensified technologies to be applied industrially. My mission is to guide process engineers to consider intensified technologies that can substantially benefit the operation by reducing waste generation and energy consumption, and by compacting the operation in fewer pieces of equipment. I’m developing a systematic approach to facilitate the synthesis of novel configurations that include intensified options, such as those born from reactive distillation.

Due to the novelty of advanced reactive distillation technologies, there are many things that need to be studied, such as evaluating simultaneous phenomena occurring in a reactive-separation system, modeling, and testing. However, creating tools to assess technology feasibility at early stages with a limited amount of information can help incorporate additional opportunities to meet the commercial, environmental, and safety targets by using intensified equipment.

What’s the most important aspect of your work as a process engineer?

A process engineer has a helicopter view that identifies interactions and potential impacts spanning from day-to-day performance to meeting strategic goals in the long term. Communication is critical to understanding the requirements of other areas of the business. Project tracking is also vital to evaluate progress and reassess the actions taken and their implications, and perhaps redirecting efforts and resources when necessary. These actions aid in making decisions and they are also key when it comes to defining future projects. Process engineers often face a series of trade-offs that are necessary to uphold the vision of the organization. 

During my time as a lecturer in Ecuador and as a graduate teaching assistant in the United Kingdom, I´ve been pleased to take part in training a new generation of engineers. Teaching has certainly been a fantastic opportunity to transfer my knowledge and experience to aspiring young engineers, and contribute to society and the chemical and manufacturing industry. I’m happy to be a source of inspiration for young engineers to continue generating new knowledge through further studies at the graduate level. 

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Process Engineer Perspective Talks (PEP Talks)

AIChE has launched 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.

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