Using an augmented reality (AR) platform, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Rochester in New York is developing an innovative way for his students to understand and conduct chemical reactions. While simple in its design—webcam, computer, projector, and a pane of glass—the AR tabletop is impressive in its execution. This teaching experiment, developed in Professor Andrew White’s lab, turned out to have some interesting implications for the chemical industry, as well.

Last month, students had the opportunity to arrange, and then rearrange, coffee mugs and popsicle sticks on the table’s glass surface. This activity might seem odd, but when looked at differently, it becomes clear that something a bit more complex was taking place.

In augmented reality, the coffee mugs transformed into 10-cubic meter reactors—both plug flow and continuous stirred-tank reactors—and the popsicle sticks were suddenly pipes used to connect them. Student’s also had a nob which allowed them to adjust each reactor’s temperature as it was added to the configuration. Cameras captured reactor locations, and then this information was relayed to a computer, which was hooked up to a projector that displayed the results of the simulations onto the tabletop.

The students were simulating chemical reactions in real-time, at a real-life chemical plant.

Students simulate reactions in a chemical plant using an augmented reality tabletop developed in the lab of Andrew White, assistant professor of chemical engineering, at the University of Rochester. (University of Rochester photo/J. Adam Fenster)

Ultimately, this exercise was designed to provide a more hands-on way for students to learn intuition by touching, interacting with, and discussing a model of a chemical plant. However, as Dr. White tells Chem.Info, this technology has the potential to be very useful beyond the classroom.

“Augmented reality is broadly the idea of enriching your environment with computer-generated imagery or information,” says White. “For practicing engineers, this will be transformative when working in a chemical plant, refinery, or doing field work. AR will find its way into many daily activities for chemists and chemical engineers.”

Unlike virtual reality (VR), which creates a three dimensional environment, augmented reality overlays video and audio onto the physical world using digital technology. A real-life example of this can be seen in White’s explanation of a situation in which an engineer could wear a headset—the next form the AR system is expected to take—that superimposes virtual and up-to-date safety and operating data, such as amount, type, or temperature of a liquid onto equipment as they move around a chemical plant.

Even further, White and his collaborators—graduate students, Heta Gandhi and Rainier Barrett, and Dr. April Leuhmann and Dr. Brendan Mort—hope to work with the Rochester Museum & Science Center to develop an AR platform for simulating oil spills at the molecular level. White says the platform has the potential to be part of the conversation regarding the use of oil dispersants during a spill. The impact these dispersants have on wildlife is highly contended, and White and his colleagues believe AR could “allow people to try to design an oil surfactant and test its performance to separate oil and water with a molecular dynamics simulation while at the same time using QSAR modeling to assess its toxicity.” They also have future plans to develop a way to “control where a dispersant is injected in an interactive oil spill.”

The AR prototype is still in its early stages as it was designed only last July. However, White hopes that the cheap and easy-to-use design will lead to widespread adoption in the coming years. AR is very likely going to become a major aspect of education and beyond, and its journey in the chemical industry appears to be something worth following.

(Source: The University of Rochester)