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Virtual Community of Practice - Labs Resources for Remote or Socially-distanced Labs

AIChE Education Division - Virtual Community of Practice - Labs

Resources for Remote or Socially-distanced Labs

This webpage presents the pros and cons of potential experiments and simulations for remote chemical engineering laboratories.  This compilation is an outgrowth of the AIChE Education Division’s Virtual Community of Practice for labs over the spring and summer 2020.  Various departments are using combinations of the five different solutions described below:  simulation, remotely-operated equipment, video link to an operator in the lab, data with supporting videos, and at-home experiment. 

Simulations

Simulations have the benefit of being run entirely remotely.  They also allow students to run experiments that would not be safe to actually run.  The simulations are faster than actual experiments, which allows students to run more experiments.  Students develop better understanding with simulations than with experiments [1].  Students do not develop hands-on lab skills with simulations, which may charge a fee and may not include experimental error.  Simulation resources are described in detail in Table 1. 

TABLE 1

Simulation resources with contacts, costs, topics, and features

Simulation

Website

Cost (subject to change)

Topics

Features

PetroSkills

Go to site

$125 to $87.50 per seat per year for 100+ seats

Heat exchangers, centrifugal pump, distillation, and pH control

Steady flow, startup and shutdown, alarms, equipment malfunctions, HAZOP analysis and exercises, learning management system with exercises in process safety, control theory, and mass & energy balances

Simtronics

Go to site

$11,500 for the system, modules are $2600 and up

Wide range of unit operations and entire plants

Learning managment system, equipment faults, training workbooks, 5 levels of exercise difficulty

Virtual CVD Reactor

Go to site

Free

Chemical vapor deposition, design of experiments, ellipsometry

Suggested assignment available, faculty may customize for the class and for groups, measurement noise, instructional videos

Virtual Bioreactor

Go to site

Free

Design of experiments, bioreactors

Suggested assignments, customizable for student groups, measurement noise, instructional materials

LearnChemE.com Virtual Laboratories

Go to site

Free

Catalytic reaction, flash distillation, design of experiments

Reactor is customizable for groups, instructional screencasts and videos

LearnChemE.com Interactive Simulations

Go to site

Free

Fluids, heat transfer, reactor design, thermodynamics process control, mass & energy balances, separations, statistics

Supporting theory

AIChE Concept Warehouse Simulations

Go to site

Free

Thermodynamics, heat transfer, reaction kinetics

Reaction kinetics includes noise

Students Online Laboratory through Virtual Experimentation

Go to site

Free

Fluids and reaction engineering

Supporting theory and instructions

Web Labs

Go to site

Free

Kinetics, reactor design, and process control

Supporting descriptions and instructions

ChemSepTM LITE

Go to site

Free

Separations

Commercial version available for $115 first year $75 subsequent years, discount for CACHE members

Control the Nuclear Power Plant

Go to site

Free

Nuclear reactor

Random failure sequences, instructions

Modeling and Control

Go to site

Free

Dynamic system analysis and process control

Supporting theory

 

Remotely-operated Equipment

Some universities have upgraded their laboratories extensively, replacing manual valves and local readout instruments with computer control and data acquisition.  Some of these computer control systems can be accessed remotely, allowing students to run experiments without being in the lab.  This allows labs to be run in distance education much as if they are normally.  If cameras are positioned in the lab for students to see and hear the equipment, the experience is even more similar.  The students may not gain as many hands-on skills as in the actual laboratory.  The equipment is expensive and time-consuming to build.  A teaching assistant or lab technician may be required in the lab for safety reasons or to operate a few remaining manual pieces of equipment.  OSIsoft has a free Academic Hub (https://www.osisoft.com/academia/) which allows remote storage and access of data to facilitate remotely-operated experiments.  All data on the Hub are accessible by all users, allowing students to data mine.  Many laboratory and industrial equipment suppliers such as Pignat, Honeywell, Omega, National Instruments, and Endress+Hauser sell the necessary equipment and software.

Video Link to Lab

Other universities have an operator in the lab with students linked to the lab live through various video conferencing software.  The lab operator may be a teaching assistant or another student.  The students experience the lab real-time and must troubleshoot the lab as it runs.  If the students rotate through the lab, being the operator, then all students eventually get hands-on experience.  The remote students can be assigned specific tasks to keep them involved in the experiment.  This solution costs less than remotely controlled equipment but does require webcams and internet bandwidth to run successfully.    

Data with Supporting Videos

Another solution is to give the students data to analyze with videos to support their understanding of the experiment.  The faculty give data sets to the students from actual experiments or simulations or make noise adjustments to previous datasets.  The videos allow the students to see the equipment running and to create apparatus diagrams.  Data may also be provided in the videos.  This solution is low cost and allows the students to analyze data.  The students do not gain hands-on skills, and the videos and datasets are time-consuming to create.   The low-cost desktop modules (https://labs.wsu.edu/educ-ate/desktop-learning-modules/) have some videos online with data for students to analyze.  

At-home Experiments

Another solution is to have students run experiments at home.  This allows students to get the hands-on experience that is missing from many of the other solutions, but the department must purchase, assemble, distribute, and maintain the materials kits.  The kits usually do not contain pilot-plant scale equipment as many unit operations laboratories do.  Different at-home experiments are described in Table 2.  Most of these are materials lists and not handouts for experiments with theory and instructions, but several are based on typical experiments already existing in unit operations labs. 

TABLE 2

Resources for At-home Experiments

Experiment

Resource

Cost/student

Topics

Low-cost Desktop Modules

Go to site

$400 for all 4 modules

Fluids and heat transfer

Fermentation Lab

Go to site

$100

Fermentation kinetics

Tank Drainage

Go to site

$20

Fluids

Falling Sphere Viscometer

Go to site

$20

Fluids

Pump Lab in a Tub Kit

Go to site

$89

Fluids

Pump Curve

Go to site

Fluids

Heat Transfer and Thermal Property Take-home Kit

Go to site

$54

Heat Transfer

Heat Transfer

Go to site

Heat Transfer

Chem-E-Car

Go to site

Reaction kinetics

Temperature Control Lab

Go to site

$35 + shipping

Process control

Manometer

Go to site

$10

Fluids

References

  1. Seifan M, Robertson N, and Berenjian A. (2020) Use of virtual learning to increase key laboratory skills and essential non-cognitive characteristics.  Education for Chemical Engineers. 33:  66 – 75.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ece.2020.07.006