Chemical engineering is a wide-ranging discipline, with applications in agriculture, pharmaceuticals, water treatment, electronics, medicine, energy and dozens of other fields. But one important and well-developed aspect of chemical engineering is surprising to many people: supply chain design and management.
The refineries and reactors that produce chemicals and petroleum products are massive, elaborate facilities. They take in crude oil, natural gas and other feedstocks and turn them into hundreds of types of chemicals, plastics and fuels. Over the years, chemical engineers specializing in process systems have developed sophisticated methods for managing and optimizing the inputs, energy use, and outputs of these facilities.
Styliani Avraamidou, who joined the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering as an assistant professor in September 2021, plans to take the lessons learned by these process systems engineers and use them to transition chemical, plastic and food supply chains into more sustainable circular economy systems. The goal, she says, is to design restorative and regenerative systems as a means of achieving environmental, social and economic sustainability.
Avraamidou earned her PhD at Imperial College London, studying process systems engineering and developing algorithms to solve nested optimization problems, focusing most of her work on issues involving chemical supply chains. Prior to joining UW-Madison, she worked as an assistant research scientist at the Texas A&M Energy Institute.
A major element of Avraamidou’s research at UW-Madison will be defining just what sustainability and circularity really mean when it comes to supply chain optimization. Traditionally, engineers optimize systems to minimize costs, waste or other well-defined metrics. “We don’t know how to quantify circularity in its totality and we don’t know how to optimize sustainability as a metric,” she says. “So finding metrics for these things is something we’ll be looking into.”
Her research also focuses on integrating the competing interests of various decision makers into these mathematical models. That means finding ways to balance the varying objectives of chemical plant owners, transportation companies, consumers and government regulators while still producing a beneficial, sustainable solution.
A third thrust of Avraamidou’s research, and one made even more urgent during the pandemic years, is developing resilience and designing ways that supply chains can more quickly bounce back to normal operations after disruptions.
Most of Avraamidou’s work is computational, meaning she won’t need a large physical lab, but she won’t be lonely either: At UW-Madison, she feels like she’ll be part of bigger team, since her work will be highly collaborative. In particular, she will take new developments from her experimental colleagues—like processes for making green chemicals, biofuels and green plastics—and show how they can fit into large, established supply chains.
“I’m working on the higher level, taking input from emerging technologies and using optimization and mathematical models to quantify how those technologies will be shaping the future,” she says. “The innovative projects the rest of the faculty are working on were a driver for me to come to Madison. I think I can help them and they can help me, and at the same time I can promote their research to industry.”
Author: Jason Daley