To me, there is nothing better than struggling with a problem and then finally understanding and solving it. I enjoy teaching the chemical engineering students at WPI, because most of them also like the thrill that occurs when seemingly complicated problems start to make sense. I particularly enjoy teaching our unit operations laboratory class, where students get hands-on experience with process equipment. For some students, a light switches on when theory and experiment are combined in the lab.
My main research interest lately has been to include a third component–computer modeling–to help students learn. Modern computing environments like COMSOL Multiphysics make it easier than ever before to solve complex mathematical equations and visualize the results. Together with undergraduate students, I have been developing computer models of our unit operations laboratory experiments that provide details of the temperature, pressure, flow, and chemical composition inside the equipment. Visualizing these details that result from solving the underlying differential equations helps both the experiments and the theory come alive. These models have been used in the lab course to provide a stronger link between theory and experiment and have been shown to provide improved learning. Examples of laboratory processes that we have modeled include compressible fluid flow in pipes, oxidation of methane in a catalytic reactor, carbon dioxide removal from air in a packed column absorber, and heat transfer in beverage bottles. I have also been using computer models as virtual experiments to aid in learning engineering fundamentals and am studying their use in correcting common misconceptions about the basic physics underlying fluid flow and heat and mass transfer processes.
My other areas of research have also benefited from computer modeling. We have done experimental research in separation processes like filtration, chromatography, liquid extraction, and electrophoresis for recovery of proteins from biochemical processes. We recently developed some new insight into a novel separation method called two-phase electrophoresis by combining experiments with computer modeling.