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Pitt ChemE Students Turn Class Project into $5,000 InnoCentive Award

PITTSBURGH, PA (March 27, 2017) … InnoCentive, a crowdsourcing platform for problem-solving and innovation, awarded $5,000 to a team of students from the University of Pittsburgh for designing a solution for shipping polymers that expand too much when they’re cold and become too sticky when they’re hot. The students solved the problem for a chemical engineering class at the Swanson School and submitted their proposal to the InnoCentive Challenge Center after receiving an “A” on the assignment.

Hydrogenated styrene diene block copolymer is used to make cosmetics and tough synthetic rubbers. An anonymous company submitted a challenge to the crowdsourcing website InnoCentive to see if anyone could find a way to improve its method of baling the polymers for shipment. The company had been using heat to compress the polymers and save space on the trucks; however, the heat also caused the polymer to stick to the surface of the conveyor system that led to the baler. 

The four Pitt students devised a solution that involved adding a vertical conveyor to the baling process. This particular type of spiral-shaped conveyor, commonly used in the food industry, looks like a giant metal spring. It can simultaneously heat the polymer while transporting it to the entrance of a top-loading baler. It also moves the polymer with vibration, preventing any chance of the compressed rubber sticking to the surface.

“When we came up with this solution, we knew it was right,” said Devin Ulam, an undergraduate student and member of the Pitt team. “The vertical conveyor only takes up a little bit of space, and the polymer crumb is heated at the last moment before it enters the baler, so there is no risk of clogging.”

The other team members were Travis La Fleur, Stephen Provencher and Timothy Shearer. All four students are majoring in chemical engineering at Pitt and enrolled in “Taking Products to Market – Next Step in Chemical Product Design” (ChE314) in the fall of 2016.

The course emphasizes entrepreneurial approaches to chemical engineering product development. Christopher Wilmer, assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at Pitt, taught the course last fall and directed the Pitt team to the InnoCentive challenge to gain experience with real-world problem solving.

“We are teaching engineers in this course to consider the values and needs of the customer throughout the design process,” said Wilmer. “These students did an excellent job of finding a solution that didn’t make any drastic changes to the company’s product or processes. It will be very easy to implement their solution, and I think that is why they deserved to win the award.” 

InnoCentive is a network of more than 375,000 problem solvers. The platform connects corporations, government organizations and nonprofit companies with experts in the fields of computer science, math, chemistry, life sciences, physical sciences and business. When an organization submits a “challenge problem” to InnoCentive, the competition is open to the InnoCentive community. The organization that submitted the challenge ultimately determines the winning solution.


Image Above: (from left to right) Devin Ulam, Timothy Shearer, Travis La Fleur and Stephen Provencher.

Author: Matt Cichowicz, Communications Writer

Contact: Paul Kovach