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In 2011, The Dow Chemical Company launched a program called the University Partnership Initiative (UPI) in an effort to advance scientific research and develop the world’s next generation of scientists and leaders in process development, energy, transportation, and consumer applications. As part of this program, Dow invested in 11 chemical engineering research departments across the country, including at Carnegie Mellon University.

Thus began the five-year project funded by Dow that would support nine graduate students in CMU’s Department of Chemical Engineering from 2011 to 2016, allowing them to gain a practical, industrial perspective on their research.

This year, as the project came to an end, Dow has taken new steps to continue to encourage interaction between industry and research at Carnegie Mellon. Dow chose CMU as one of the first universities with which to renew the UPI.

“We have been asked to help Dow understand how to use numerical and textual data to help them improve the reliability of their processes and uncover meaningful insights and patterns related to their global operations,” says Nick Sahinidis, professor of chemical engineering and director of the Center for Advanced Process Decision-making (CAPD).

While some projects in the Dow-CMU program focus on the modeling and optimization of chemical reactors, others consider the entire supply chain and require an ability to model uncertainties in the marketplace at any given time.

Braulio Brunaud and Sreekanth Rajagopalan are two chemical engineering Ph.D. students working in supply chain optimization under Dow’s UPI. Each student works directly with a Dow engineer to assist with work on their projects, ensuring a two-way exchange of ideas as well as an opportunity for the students to develop industry contacts that might have otherwise been unavailable.

Especially as research engineers, it’s sort of our imperative to avoid … things that don’t turn up any immediate practical use. It’s important to have a firm practical focus.

Nicholas Austin, Ph.D. student, ChemE, Carnegie Mellon University

Brunaud notes that in the beginning as a Ph.D. student, his research was highly theoretical. “That was one of my main apprehensions of entering a Ph.D. program—learning a very specific, tiny thing for a number of years,” says Brunaud, who is in his third year. “But by having the opportunity of being here with the UPI, we’ve done something different; we’re doing some real, high-impact research.” Brunaud’s research focuses on mathematical programming and computing within server operations.

Nicholas Austin, who recently graduated with his Ph.D. in chemical engineering, was also part of the Dow UPI project.  His research was in molecular design as a way to optimize in the molecular space by designing the best molecule for any given purpose. Commenting on the necessity for industrial perspective, Austin noted that his research has vastly improved through Dow’s UPI. “Especially as research engineers, it’s sort of our imperative to avoid … things that don’t turn up any immediate practical use,” says Austin. “It’s important to have a firm practical focus.”

While Brunaud is continuing on with the next project with Dow, Rajagopalan is set to graduate within the next year and has accepted a job offer from Dow. Given that the project he has worked on over the past five years turned out to be a success, it has since been implemented by Dow.

Rajagopalan’s project centered on maintenance turnaround planning. “Say you have a large chemical site with lots of plants that are interconnected,” explains Rajagopalan. “If you take down one plant for maintenance at a certain time of the year, then all the other plants also need to go down unless you build up an inventory. So we were trying to optimize the operation to figure out what time of the year would be a good time to take the plant down for maintenance, so that you can still satisfy demand.”

Dow’s UPI marks a valuable step in promoting direct interaction between academia and industry. Moreover, the long-term commitment allows CMU to invest in riskier approaches, which are likelier to provide greater impact. Sahinidis hopes that other companies will follow in Dow’s footsteps by implementing long-term interactions with universities in similarly unique ways.

Photo courtesy of The Dow Chemical Company