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KU graduate earns second in AIChE contest

Monday, December 11, 2006

National recognition has become a tradition at the University of Kansas School of Engineering.

KU chemical engineering graduate John Cunningham took second place at the 2006 American Institute of Chemical Engineers National Student Design Contest for individuals.

In the past 22 years, KU students have earned more honors in the institute's individual design competition than students from any other school in the nation. KU students secured first place eight times since 1985 and earned second-place, third-place and honorable mention honors several times. Participating universities may only submit two student solutions.

"I've grown to expect that KU will outperform students from around the country," said Colin Howat, professor of chemical and petroleum engineering. "Our students are mature, motivated, dedicated and well-trained. The KU undergraduate program prepares them well for the three design classes that I teach in the senior year. I have taught this design class for 20 years. KU students have won 19 awards in that time frame."

In the second of the three senior design classes all chemical engineering seniors must take, the student effort is dedicated to working the problem presented in the institute's contest. Students apply what they have learned in the classroom to an actual design situation. They employ a broad range of skills as they calculate and evaluate technical data and a variety of economic factors.

This year students were challenged to find a solution for the "Crystallization of Uranyl Nitrate from Dissolved Spent Nuclear Fuel (SNF)."

Howat explained the hurdles involved.

"There is substantial fissionable uranium available in spent nuclear power plant fuel. Most of the spent fuel is stored in water pools around the country. Unfortunately, it isn't sufficiently concentrated for power generation," he said. "Students were asked to design a process to recover that uranium so that it can be concentrated and re-used in power plant fuel. The purpose of the work was to design the process, evaluate the safety, environmental impact and economics, and compare it to a more complicated, existing technology."

The project helps prepare students for their future, regardless of what industry they enter.

"Problem-solving skills were the most important thing I took from this competition," said Cunningham, who graduated in spring 2006 and is now a chemical engineer for Koch-Glitsch in Wichita. "Though the work I do in industry is different in many ways than the work I did in my design project, I still use the same problem-solving methodology."

Cunningham received a cash prize and the A.E. Marshall Award for his second-place finish.

In February, the challenge will start anew as students use their classroom knowledge to tackle industry issues in the institute's 2007 competition.

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