Talk with Pooya Ghasemian Sorboni (Chemical Engineer and Programmer)

This week we introduce you to Pooya Ghasemian Sorboni. A fresh and high qualified engineering graduate of MSc in Chemical and Biochemical Engineering from Technical University of Denmark from Dec 2020. Earlier, he had done a BSc in Chemical Engineering from Sharif University of Technology (SUT) from Iran in 2018. He has not only concluded his MSc by writing a thesis with DTU PROSYS and Danish Hydrocarbon Research and Technology Centre (DHRTC) with impressive and remarkable results, but has a left an exceptional legacy behind for the juniors and the department by achieving a GPA of 10.6 out of 12.

He is fresh out of school, but that is not reflected in his portfolio and skills. He has in-depth broad engineering skills and industrial knowledge, which makes him a very attractive candidate for any and every industry. You must not mistake him for a mere chemical engineer, because he has a good footing in both basic and advanced Process Engineering topics and at the same time is fluent in programming languages including Python and MATLAB. He has broadened his computer science skills by being able to apply programming languages within the process engineering world to achieve more robust and efficient engineering solutions.

In his degree, he has specialised in Process Engineering, from which he has undeniable expertise in unit operation dimensioning, process design, control, optimisation, simulations, CAPEX/OPEX and other fundamentals. Furthermore, in his recent research work, he developed a multiscale modeling framework for Phase Transfer Catalysis (PTC) systems as intensified extraction-reaction processes with the integration of computational chemistry tools and process engineering methods.

Moreover, he recently completed a professional degree in data science offered by IBM. He believes that without knowledge and training on handling data skillfully, most of the information from plants and refineries, data-intensive experiments, and computer simulations is wasted. Thus, he highly recommends fresh students learn data science tools to take advantage of the increasing amount of data available to them.

It seems any employer would be lucky to have him in their team. We were lucky to get a chance to interview this man and to be able to share his experience, which presents itself as a golden advice for future grads.

Education Experience

How was the workload of your degree? What did you spend most time on? How was the workload different between your BS back in Iran and MS in Denmark?

The workload of the degree was quite manageable and standard. I have always believed that the same amount of time is required for students to consolidate the lecture session's input knowledge. One of the main differences I have felt at DTU was the very organized problem-solving sessions, where the lecturer and assistants were there for us to answer students’ questions. With this organized system, students, in only rare cases, are required to work on their projects and assignments out of the problem-solving sessions.

Was there a lot of chemistry in your curriculum in either BS of MS?

In comparison to DTU, I passed more chemistry courses in my BS degree at SUT. During my undergrad study, it was mandatory to pass science courses such as general chemistry, physical chemistry, organic and inorganic chemistry, analytical chemistry, biochemistry and microbiology. Laboratory works were also compulsory for all these courses. While at DTU, I personally wanted to specialize my degree in process engineering. Hence, I had to take new courses where mathematics was their underlying principles.

Chemical and biochemical engineering is a practical application of science (chemistry, biochemistry, or even microbiology). Not having basic theory knowledge of science may lead to blindly deciding upon an engineering problem. Thus, I recommend undergrads take fundamental science courses.

How different was the study experience between Iran and Denmark?

During my undergraduate study at SUT, we had this chance to be involved in more experimental works. In almost all our core courses which were relevant to chemical engineering and chemistry, we had to spend several sessions in different labs conducting various and exciting experiments. Performing experiment is highly crucial for engineers, and it significantly helps them grasp the course's fundamentals more efficiently. In comparison, my study at DTU was more focused on computer-assisted chemical engineering. Having more hands-on experience in labs could have made my MSc more practical. However, DTU was quite a pleasant experience because of the close interaction with the lecturer, high-quality problem-solving sessions and the very novel methods, tools and techniques we were taught. Problem-solving sessions gave me this chance to discuss and brainstorm problems and propose solutions more efficiently with my classmates and friends.

What topics did you find the most difficult during your degree?

In my opinion, reaction engineering is one of the complicated and yet essential topics in chemical and biochemical engineering. Around 60% of all chemical processes are catalyzed, and 90% of all chemical products involve at least one catalytic step. It has a vast application in different industries, including energy conversion, environmental remediation, chemical synthesis, etc. This significance is even more intensified when we consider enzymes as biological catalysts.

However, I had an excellent performance in courses relevant to (bio)reaction engineering, some theoretical principles about this topic were challenging to comprehend. Good knowledge of (bio)chemistry and microbiology helps you better understand the underlying principles surrounding (bio)reaction engineering. Moreover, in this sub-field, you also face other aspects of chemical engineering such as transport phenomena (e.g., the effect of transport phenomena in catalytic reactions)

What line did you choose to focus during your degree? Why?

I chose Chemical and Biochemical Process Technology because I have always been passionate about the mathematical description of process systems and their components. A process engineer can work in various industries, including but limited to chemical manufacturing, petroleum refining, pharmaceutical manufacturing, and wastewater treatment. If you have a flair for mathematics, chemistry, and physics; computer applications; chemical and refinery plant operations, processes, equipment; safety, health, and environment; instrumentation and troubleshooting, I recommend considering process engineering as the focus of your study.

How did you get the position for MSc in Denmark? How did you do it and was there any constraints or anything people should be aware of?

If you are interested in starting an MSc degree at DTU, I recommend you take a look at this link (https://www.dtu.dk/english/education/msc/admission-and-deadlines). You will find complete information about the application procedure, deadlines and required documents. DTU offers two separate study commencements (starting in September and February) for around a year. Prior to the application deadline, you also need to take a language test to prove your language proficiency.

You are an exceptional and advanced programmer. Why did you learn programming and what were the benefits in chemical engineering?

I imagine everyone has slightly different reasons. Solving problems and knowing I have created something that will be productively used by another person is exhilarating. There are some sub-areas in chemical engineering that you can apply your programming and coding skills: a) Computational Fluid Dynamics b) Process Dynamics & Control c) Modelling and Simulation of Chemical Processes. d) Process Optimization

As an example, imagine we want to determine the optimal operating conditions for an existing column to achieve specific performance at minimum cost (or minimum energy usage) given the feed(s). We can quickly solve this problem by employing a programming tool. This example is relevant to a parametric optimization problem.

In another example, suppose we are interested in studying heat transfer (e.g., radial temperature distribution) in a cylinder, considering initial and boundary conditions. We either can use a CFD simulation software (e.g., COMSOL Multiphysics, ANSYS, etc.), or we can mathematically formulate the problem and numerically solve it in a programming language (e.g., MATLAB).

In a more complex example, imagine you are able to write programs to acquire data from new sources automatically (e.g., simulation or a real-world distillation column), to clean, reformat, and integrate that data with your existing data, and to implement far more sophisticated analyses than your colleagues who can only use pre-existing tools. By doing so, you are more likely to make a creative innovation that your colleagues would not even think of exploring due to a lack of programming skill. This example is relevant to automation in process engineering.

Your thesis topic was quite complex and interesting. Could you summaries your thesis a little? How was your experience? How were the 5 months divided?

Performing a special course on “Integration of Computational Chemistry and Process Design” motivated me to further pursue in-depth research on ”Phase Transfer Catalysis (PTC) as an intensified extraction-reaction process”. Although some attempts to construct case-specific and generic PTC models were made, they suffer from a lack of either modeling consideration or thermodynamic model parameters. These limitations restrict the solution space to design new PTC-based processes. During my master thesis, these design barriers have been overcome by developing a multiscale modeling framework using different tools at different time and space scales of the chemical supply chain, starting from the electronic level at computational chemistry to reactor level at process system engineering. The developed framework is composed of three modeling units: physical equilibrium, chemical equilibrium, and material conservation. At the electronic level, DFT is the method used for electronic structure calculations. In addition, as an implicit solvation model, COSMO is used to model solvent effects in quantum chemical calculations. COSMO-RS adds a statistical thermodynamic framework on top of COSMO to obtain liquid-phase thermodynamic properties. All the model equations describing the framework were formulated (and scripted) in Python and solved in a Python-based optimization environment. The framework applied to three case studies: a) chlorination of organobromine process b) benzoin condensation processes c) production of Alpha-Aminobutyric Acid as an intermediate for Levetiracetam Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient (API).

Doing multidisciplinary research is always challenging. Fortunately, before I commenced my thesis, I had this opportunity to define a special course on that topic. The course nicely introduced me to computational chemistry methods and tools. The course outcome was a publication related to the conversion of Hydrogen Sulfide to value-added Products by employing our developed framework.

I recommend students who are about to start their thesis make short-term and long-term plans. At the end of the first month, it would be very nice to write a summary of what they have read during the first month. The next three months usually is spent on the project itself. I also recommend them to try to write the report in parallel to their project work. The reason is that sometimes reminiscing a detail of a project that we did several months ago is difficult. The last month is for reviewing the work, checking the objective of the project and completing the report.

What skills do you think you have learned through your chemical engineering degree?

During my study, the technical skills that I have acquired can be mass & energy balances, transport phenomena, process design, control and optimization, separation processes, process instrumentation, mathematical modeling, reaction engineering, biorefinery, chemistry and microbiology, sustainability, etc. I also learn more about safety and regulatory issues related to chemical industry as well as pharma and biotechnological industry.

I developed problem-solving, analytical, detailed and holistic views, prioritizing, teamwork, and communication skills on the personality level.

Did you have student jobs during or between your education? How did you get them? Where did you work? How did it help your education or future career?

I had a non-engineering job during my master at DTU, which considerably helped me develop my soft skills. The job also helped me to adapt myself better to Danes’ culture. Moreover, I had some voluntary experiences during my study. I was a board member of KTStudent Student Union at DTU Chemical Engineering. KTStudent aims to improve students' study environment through social and professional activities, including company presentations, company visits, social events, etc. Besides these general activities, I also served as a treasurer and recruitment responsible at KTStudent. That experience helped me to meet and know awesome people from the DTU Chemical Engineering department and companies.

Future Work Experience

Which industry do you have your eyes on?

I have not limited myself to any specific industry yet. To me, the responsibilities and activities involved in a job are more important. As a graduate, I would like to employ my current skills and further develop them and acquire new expertise. One of the exciting aspects of chemical engineering is that you have a wide variety of industry choices, from the energy sector to the pharma and biotech industry.

Do you have any country-specific wishes for employment?

Well, I consider Denmark as the country of my employment. I believe, having a two-year experience at DTU made me familiarized well with Danes’ culture, and now I am ready to enter the job market. The outstanding work-life balance, welfare, sustainability, and its pristine nature are the main reasons that motivate me to live and work in Denmark.

Any general suggestions for future graduates? Something they should be doing while they are still in university for future. What skills should they focus on during university years?

Chemical Engineering is undeniably challenging. I highly recommend them to understand the core courses in chemical engineering. Knowing how to solve a problem by calculation does not necessarily guarantee that you grasp the fundamental of a specific subject. Analyze the result and excavate the reason. Do the assignments and projects, ask question when you are in doubt. Furthermore, make yourself involved in courses where you can also learn about economics, management, safety and the environment.

Having familiarity with a process simulation software (e.g., Aspen HYSYS, Aspen Plus, Pro/2, etc.) and a CFD tool (COMSOL Multiphysics, Ansys-CFX) is beneficial. Microsoft Office Excel is also a convenient tool for some repetitive and iterative calculations as well as graphical techniques, e.g., distillation column design using McCabe–Thiele method.

I also recommend students to learn Maple, which is a symbolic and numeric computing environment. It covers several areas of technical computing, such as symbolic mathematics, numerical analysis, data processing, visualization, and others.

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