Every day our lives are affected by the work of chemical engineers who specialize in solving problems through the use of polymers. Simply put, polymers are long “macro-molecules”, formed by combining carbon or silicon atoms with other elements like hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. The combinations form long chains of repeating chemical structures, each with a unique set of chemical properties and characteristics. Depending on the atoms used and their arrangement, engineers and chemists use polymers to create almost anything from a soft toothbrush bristle to a tough bullet-proof vest.
Some polymers occur in nature, like cellulose, amber, shellac, and natural rubber. Other polymers are manufactured by chemists and engineers, and are referred to as synthetic polymers. In an ongoing quest for better and more useful materials, these scientists aim to make substances tough enough to work in the bitter cold of Antarctica or under the immense pressures encountered thousands of feet below an ocean’s surface.
As a part of the “Great Job!” series that highlights exciting careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), a production crew with WVIZ/PBS ideastream®, in Cleveland, Ohio, spent a day with Becki Ramsay. Becki is a chemical engineer with the Hose Products Division of Parker-Hannifin Corporation. She and her team create hoses from synthetic polymers to meet the design specifications they get from mechanical engineers.
During our interview, Becki expressed to us why she decided early on to become an engineer.
“It’s sort of like you’re interested in so many different things that you don’t really know what to do. You like science, you like math, you like physics. You like all of that. And engineering is one of those things that you can go down any one of those paths depending on what your particular interest is.”
Eventually, Becki decided that she was interested in polymers so she continued her studies to eventually become a chemical engineer.
As a result of her work with Parker, Becki and her team create hoses that remain flexible and convey power through hydraulic fluids while operating under the most extreme environmental conditions, whether it’s sub-zero temperatures or in an application that will pulse it millions of times. These hoses are absolutely critical in the operation of machinery used in industries such as construction, mining, forestry, transportation, and more.
Every day, Becki works with chemists and other engineers to create and test the quality of new materials. On the day of our shoot, we visited the Burst Test Chamber. The chamber is made of armor-plated steel and bullet-proof glass. Inside the chamber, hoses are filled with water and pressurized until they explode. Many of the hoses have bursting points in excess of 14,000 pounds per square inch. That would be like getting hit by an explosion with more than 15 million pounds of force, or having to lift three space shuttles! During one of the tests, the hose exploded at nearly 16,000 pounds per square inch!
“The best part about this career is that I’m always learning something new. Not every design works the way we expect right from the start, but that is all part of research and development. We study and analyze samples when they fail to figure out what went wrong. We find ways to correct those problems and the whole testing process starts over again. It is exciting to see a product go from an idea to an actual sample being tested in the lab. The real satisfaction comes when you get a passing test result and know you’ve solved all the design issues.”
It was a fascinating day for us. Sometimes we take so much for granted that we don’t think about the interesting careers and interesting people who change our world with their inventions every day. Look around your house. If you look closely enough and think deeply enough, you’ll be amazed, too, by the number of everyday conveniences we have because of the ingenuity of chemical engineers like Becki Ramsay and the many other polymer scientists just like her.