On a sweltering July day in Zachary, Louisiana, Tianyi Song dons a fireproof suit and enters the chemical plant. He’s making his weekly visit to one of BASF Corporation’s plants to witness the inner-workings of chemical production firsthand.

But he’s more than just observing. Song, a senior studying chemical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, spent his summer interning at BASF Corporation, the second-largest producer and marketer of chemicals and related products in North America.

During his 11-week internship, Song’s most important project was designing the production process for 2-Ethylhexyl acetate, a chemical found in the coating of cars and other lacquers.

“It’s a relatively simple process, but it requires many different ways of thinking and designing,” said Song. “We first make a small-scale production to imitate the large-scale production that will take place in the plant, then we have experience in the lab that we can use during plant production.”

Song wrote a detailed operating procedure for the production of 2-Ethylhexyl acetate. During the reaction process, organic acid reacts with alcohol and then they separate to form water and ester, a chemical compound derived from an acid (in this case, 2-ethylhexyl acetate). The separation process is difficult to control because each piece must be stripped out at different times, different amounts, or different temperatures. First, the water must be stripped out, then the unreacted reactants, and finally the product itself.

My favorite aspect of this internship was exploring the unknown because the process I designed has never taken place in the plant.

Tianyi Song, Senior, Chemical Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University

“This is very similar to what I’m learning in the process design class I’m taking right now,” said Song. “Now that I’ve had this internship experience, I can do my coursework better because I can easily imagine the plant—not just from a paper or blueprint—which improves my designs.”

Song stressed how his internship really complemented his coursework: both in applying what he learned and gaining new insights to bring back to the classroom. In his process design course he’ll be able to share his experience designing a process, the skills he learned in teamwork and communication, the value of safety for the smooth operation of a plant, and his perspective from working for a global company.

Song is studying German as part of the Global Engineering minor offered by the College of Engineering, and even spent a summer in Germany at the Technische Universität Dortmund. Because BASF is based in Germany, he had the chance to collaborate with German engineers and even speak German with them during his internship. Now, he’s prepared to finish his undergraduate career strong and enter the chemicals production field upon graduation.

“My favorite aspect of this internship was exploring the unknown,” said Song, “because the process I designed has never taken place in the plant. Now, the production is almost ready to run, and I am extremely happy that I was able to contribute something from conception to finish.”

Photo courtesy of BASF