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When the worlds of craft beer and chemical engineering collide

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Why are Stephen Fong’s students spending their class time at a brewery?

Stephen S. Fong, Ph.D.
Stephen S. Fong, Ph.D.

It’s all part of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Engineering’s undertaking to include experiential learning in its curriculum.

Researching and experimenting on the beer-making process firsthand puts a tangible and unique twist on the typical day in the classroom or lab, said Fong, associate professor and vice chair of the Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering.

The project stemmed from an informal conversation between Fong and then-graduate student Adam Fisher, who suggested that experiencing a real production facility would give students a better educational perspective. “We decided it was an interesting idea but nothing really became of it [at the time],” he said.

But then Fong connected with Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, which allowed Fong’s students to tour its facility, where brewmaster Brian Nelson explained the brewing process.

“The initial goal was not that we were specifically looking to do a project with a brewery, but the location and willingness of Hardywood made it a natural avenue to pursue,” Fong said.

The relationship benefits both parties, he said. Students learn concepts directly in a real-world context, while the brewery obtains expertise, methods and access to equipment they may not have.

Back on campus, the chemical engineering lab focuses on testing quality control methods, yeast and contamination, and measuring alcohol correctly. The lab has expensive equipment, which most breweries lack, to test extreme accuracy of alcohol and ethanol percentages.

It’s a lot cooler to tell your friends that you’re working on brewing beer than an esoteric molecule that they never heard of.

Students were already familiar with the brewing equipment. Fong’s research group works with process engineering and growing microorganisms, yeast and bacteria, which use the same equipment needed to make beer. Their involvement, in part, has focused on analyzing chemical parts in beer after it has been made. They also focus on the microbiology side of working with yeast and other microorganisms that could be used in making beer.

“It’s a lot cooler to tell your friends that you’re working on brewing beer than an esoteric molecule that they never heard of,” Fisher said.

The project defines chemical engineering by bridging the gap between work in Fong’s lab with the fermentation process and at the brewery, Fisher said.

“Process engineering focuses on looking at how all the individual steps fit together,” Fong said. “[It] seeks to optimize overall process by optimizing each individual step.”

Each step in combining process engineering and craft brewing has a special purpose — getting the sugar out of raw grains or turning sugar into alcohol, for example. Fong assigned students different aspects of the collaboration. Freshmen developed a process diagram that illustrated the key steps and the equipment needed. Undergraduate students participating in the research aspect learned how to grow yeast cells and analyze the chemical content of beer. Graduate students identified additional microorganisms used when a second fermentation occurs, such as the aging in wine or bourbon barrels.

The most challenging part of the project was having realistic expectations on their quality control experiments, balancing what they could do in the lab and what the brewery could do in-house, Fisher said.

Fong has plans to support more types of chemical analyses and create courses covering fermentation. He’d like to design extra research projects that can find low-cost methods to monitor the process and identify new organisms to start fermentation.

“One of the overall things that all of the students have learned,” Fong said, “is that the concerns and practical operation of a facility are different from the things that we think about from a textbook or classroom setting.”

 

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