Partnering with Industry and Keeping Talent in PA

Most researchers working towards their Ph.D. in chemical engineering know one thing: if they want to go into industry, they will have to leave behind the project that inspired their passion during their academic career.

Markus Drouven, however, thanks in part to PITA seed funding, had the unique opportunity to continue his academic pursuits in industry after graduation.

Drouven, who worked during his Ph.D. on the optimization for shale gas project with Carnegie Mellon University’s Chemical Engineering Professor Ignacio Grossmann, was eager to see if their theories would hold up in real-world situations. Grossmann had a contact at Pittsburgh-based EQT Corporation, the largest natural gas producer in the country, and reached out about a collaborative effort to put their optimization techniques to the test.

“Our project was focused on building mathematical optimization models to support shale gas development at a very high level,” says Drouven. “However, by partnering with EQT, we were able to look at the practical problems that businesses face. EQT was very excited as well to give our model a shot—they have a strong culture of innovation, and were curious to see what kinds of solutions and schedules our model would propose in comparison with how they had done things historically.”

Drouven met with EQT twice a month throughout the project, and had access to the company’s data, as well as its experience. ”

“EQT would keep us on track because they knew the industry,” says Drouven. “They would say, ‘I see you considered the technical constraints, but what about seasonal constraints?’ They made sure we stayed on the ground and we didn’t do work from an ivory tower.”

One of the many problems Drouven addressed that was of concern to the industry was how to reduce the number of water hauling trucks on the road. Large trucks are required to deliver water for shale gas development, but reducing truck traffic on the roads is better for everyone—it helps to reduce accidents, decrease road wear and tear, and saves the shale gas company money. Drouven and the CMU team, which included Grossmann as well as ChemE Ph.D. student Linlin Yang and Universidad Nacional del Litoral Associate Professor Diego Cafaro, proposed strategies for delivering water through pipelines instead of via trucks.

“We were able to help practitioners in this industry make better, faster, and safer decisions,” says Drouven.

Upon graduation, Drouven also benefited from the collaboration: EQT offered him a position in the company. Now, Drouven is the Optimization Engineering Team Lead for EQT, where he continues the work he began in academia and makes an impact in his community, because of the collaboration between PITA, EQT, and CMU.

“I decided to go to CMU because I knew the work I would do would have exposure to people from industry, and the work we were doing made a difference,” says Drouven. “At the end of the day, our research mattered in the area where we live and work.”