A team of chemical engineering undergraduate students led by Professor Jochen Lauterbach won the ChemE Cube Competition on November 6 in Orlando, Florida. The students placed first out of 38 teams worldwide.
Launched in 2020 by the Rapid Advancement in Process Intensification Deployment Manufacturing Institute, ChemE Cube is an annual competition where undergraduate university teams design, build and demonstrate a one cubic-foot chemical plant to solve a problem defined by industrial sponsors of the competition. The competition emphasizes the core values of teamwork, creativity and innovation, sustainable development, and diversity and inclusion.
The College of Engineering and Computing (CEC) team consisted of seniors Sarah Stofik (team lead), Alexis Allegro, Alyssa Brucato, Trevor Corsello and Victoria Garman. “The experience was cool because we got to use a lot of concepts from different classes and apply them in a real-life setting,” Stofik says. “It was a great way to use what we’ve learned, especially this close to graduating.”
This year’s problem statement involved direct air capture with an emphasis on reduced carbon dioxide emissions in product design. Teams were tasked with building a modular direct-air capture mini-plant that would capture carbon dioxide from surrounding atmospheric air for 30 seconds to 10 minutes. The design was also required to demonstrate technological breakthroughs that address a market need and benefits to humanity.
After the problem statement was released in January, each team gave a 20-minute presentation on their cube's preliminary design and value proposition this past spring. In April, 12 teams were selected to advance to the final round of the competition in Orlando. Upon returning to campus in August, the chemical engineering team worked daily to build their cube and create the engineering design package and promotional materials.
In Orlando, the 12 remaining teams competed in a testing duel and promoted their technology through a “Shark Tank”-style pitch, poster presentation and one-minute video ad. In addition to overall first place, the Chemical Engineering team received the Entrepreneur Award for earning the highest amount of mock investment dollars in their “Shark Tank” pitch.
When Lauterbach first learned of ChemE Cube, he shared it with his Next Energy course (ECHE 573) and asked for volunteers to participate. While his team of five was the smallest in the competition, Lauterbach estimated that the students worked 20 to 30 hours per week on their preparations.
“They put the last half year of their life into this,” Lauterbach says. “When I saw the information about the competition, I knew that it would be a lot of work but also a great learning experience for them. There were so many different facets to the project, from developing the business pitch to building and testing the cube.”
The ChemE Cube Competition took place in conjunction with the American Institute of Chemical Engineers Annual Meeting, an educational forum addressing cutting-edge research, new technologies and emerging growth areas in chemical engineering. Prior to the competition, Lauterbach’s team attended seminars, networking events and a recruitment fair with other chemical engineering students.
“This opportunity was really important to all of us,” Allegro says. “There is a big push for chemical engineers to do this type of work, so it was helpful to learn more about something that we’re really passionate about and may use in the future.”