Chemical engineering students win national title for nonalcoholic beer project

LAWRENCE — An efficient, economical method for brewing nonalcoholic beer earned a team of chemical engineering students from the University of Kansas School of Engineering top honors this fall in a prestigious national design competition.

Hal Laurence, Lansing, and Le Tran, Newton, both 2012 chemical engineering graduates, and fifth-year senior MacKenzie Christie, Lawrence, claimed first place in the team category of the 2012 American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) Student Design Competition. 

The students prepared their winning entry as part of a yearlong, two-part senior design course.  Kyle Camarda, associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering and associate dean of undergraduate programs, was the instructor for the Design I course, and Marylee Southard, associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, led the team through the Design II course, as well as preparation and submission of the project for the national competition. 

The design competition required more than just solid engineering skills. Students were challenged to evaluate the economics and political climate of producing nonalcoholic beer in five states – while selecting a site that had the capability to increase its production without undergoing a physical expansion. 

“The team did the economics very carefully. They gave it a lot of attention,” Southard said.  “They found that some southern states are the best places to produce nonalcoholic beverages because of their higher alcohol taxes: They got significant tax savings by making nonalcoholic beer instead of the usual brew.”

With its first-place finish, the KU team earned $900 and the opportunity to present its research at the 2012 AIChE national conference this fall in Pittsburgh. Southard said KU’s entry stood out for several factors, including a creative and lucrative use of a byproduct of their project.  

“They used a unique process to use the extracted alcohol to give an extremely high resale value,” Southard said. “In addition to the nonalcoholic beer, they produced 98 percent pure ethanol.  Because of the properties of water in ethanol, it’s tough to remove the last 5 percent of water – and you can sell 98 percent ethanol at a premium … about $28 per gallon.” Ethanol of such high purity is frequently used in medical applications or as an intermediate for synthesis of other chemicals, Southard said. 

By choosing to purify and sell their ethanol byproduct, the team avoided fees and penalties associated with discharging ethanol into the wastewater system. 

Mackenzie Christie, who’s set to graduate in May with a degree in chemical engineering, said that even though the specifics of the competition dealt with nonalcoholic beverages, the concepts are universal to chemical engineering.

“The problem really required numerous skills that we had to put together in solving this problem. From engineering calculations to economics, this project really provided valuable learning opportunities in many areas,” Christie said. 

This marks at least the ninth time since 1985 that KU has earned first place in the national AIChE team design competition. Southard attributes the track record of success, in part, to the way individuals use their specific skill sets to make the strongest possible team.

“To be successful, you need people with creative ideas, who can solve difficult technical details, who look at the ‘big picture’ and who get on the computer and churn out results once the team has its basic design,” Southard said. “For the team competition, a group of students with that combination of skills is more successful than a team where everyone is at the top of the class. This is one of those areas where non-academically gifted students can truly shine – where their hard work and talents can bring real success.”