Lee invests $1 million in pilot plant upgrade

Lee College is investing $1 million to upgrade its on-campus pilot plant, where students get hands-on experience in operating and maintaining the same type of equipment and systems used by companies throughout the petrochemical industry.

Pilot PlantIn place at facilities ranging from oil refineries to specialty chemical and plastics production plants, distillation units take in a mixture of materials and separate them into purified, individual components that can then be sold for profit. The unit at Lee College is a learning laboratory for students in the drafting, instrumentation and process technology programs — and, often, for those already employed at one of the many petrochemical companies located in the city of Baytown or across the nearby Houston Ship Channel who need additional training.

The suggestions of employers and industry advisers played a role in how Lee College decided to enhance its pilot plant, according to process technology instructor Bryant Dyer. For example, one part of the project includes installation of the same distributed control system now in use in several of the units at the ExxonMobil complex in Baytown. Those who complete the college program and secure positions at the company will be able to make a more seamless transition into its workforce.

“Students will be training on a system that is very current,” said Dyer, who is overseeing the plant upgrade process. “We play a dual role in the community: helping students get an education that is going to make them employable, and providing companies with capable, up-to-date employees that they can train quickly and safely to integrate into their facility.”

Other planned upgrades at the pilot plant are designed to make the distillation unit run more efficiently at less cost for the college. Every new piece is engineered and sized to work together, improving the unit’s overall function. The outdated carbon steel used for many of the old components — prone to rust and corrosion — will be replaced with stainless steel that is more resistant to the hot water and industrial food dye that runs through the system.

“Mainly, the maintenance will be limited to keeping things greased that need to be lubricated, and occasional work on the seals of our pumps,” Dyer said. “We should have very, very low maintenance costs for years and years to come.”

The concrete slab on which the distillation unit is fixed will also be improved as part of the upgrade project. A border will be placed around the slab and a sump pump installed that will allow run-off liquids to be captured and recycled back into the system.

“That’s an important concept of operations; if any material gets out, we don’t want it getting off into the environment,” Dyer said. “It’s going to help shape the way students are being trained to think.”

The pilot plant is an integral part of the curriculum that aims to simulate in every way possible the actual environment of a petrochemical facility. Students are brought to the distillation unit within their first few days of class, and are challenged to demonstrate increased mastery of its operation as they progress through their program. The upgrades are expected to be complete by fall 2014.

“We can’t possibly represent to them every unit they might get put on, but what we try to do is teach students basic things that they can apply to any unit where they go to work,” Dyer said. “If you understand how a centrifugal pump works in our unit, it will work the same in any unit and you will easily adapt to any changes. Students really get a chance at Lee College to see what’s expected of them in the real world. They typically come back and say, ‘Boy, I’m glad we did that.’”