What’s the science behind the best cup of joe? Ask a chemical engineer.

First-year chemical and life science engineering students gear up for a classroom coffee brewing competition

Coffee being poured into a cup on a table

Chemical engineering is actually part of your daily life — starting with that first cup of coffee.

That’s one lesson that professor Thomas D. Roper, Ph.D., is getting across to first-year students at Virginia Commonwealth University College of Engineering this fall with a new, hands-on course that also involves their taste buds.

Instead of pipettes and vials, students in Chemical and Life Science Engineering 101 are using equipment such as coffee grinders and several types of brewing machines to learn fundamental chemical engineering concepts by brewing coffee.

“We wanted to increase the interest in how chemical engineering is used in everyday lives to do things,” Roper said. Especially for first-year students, he said it was important to provide opportunities to work in a laboratory setting. Calling this approach “non-threatening, familiar and fun,” Roper discussed the idea with chemical engineering professors William Ristenpart, Ph.D., and Tonya Kuhl, Ph.D., who developed a Design of Coffee course at University of California at Davis.

Here in Richmond, Virginia, which hosted premier coffee producers and baristas for the U.S. Coffee Championships preliminaries in September 2019, Roper lined up local favorite Blanchard’s Coffee Roasting Co. to supply the java beans.

Roper received a challenge grant from VCU Relevant Experiental Applied Learning (VCU REAL) in the Office of the Provost to revamp the traditional lecture class into a series of labs. Launching a new program amid the coronavirus pandemic presented challenges. But Roper said by breaking the class up into several different sections, the students, wearing face masks, can spread out and keep their distance. Instead of pairing up with a lab partner, each student has an individual equipment kit. (Students not attending in person have access to the data so they can complete lab reports remotely.)

First-year student Ty Phillips, a chemical and life science engineering major, said he has been enjoying the experience — in person. “We get to use all the skills we’ve learned in terms of concepts like process flow diagrams,” he said. “I’m really grateful that the coffee lab is happening. I’m glad to get to do it.”

The course teaches principles such as heat transfer, filtration and mass balance. For instance, mass balance can be demonstrated by determining what happens to all the water when making a pot of coffee. “Your water has gone several places,” Roper said. “You’ve lost some of the water as steam — it’s not an entirely closed system. You have lost some of your water in the filter paper,” and the rest ends up as the coffee drink.

Roper, who is director of pharmaceutical engineering for the college and a Virginia Center for Innovative Technology Eminent Scholar, said the mass balance concept is also important in the process of crystallization of drugs through a paper or cloth filter.  “You would want to know how much of that drug that you made is collected on the filter and how much remained in the solution,” he said.

Faculty members in other disciplines also collaborated with Roper on the grant: James K. Ferri, Ph.D., professor and associate chair in the Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering; Radhika Barua, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering; and Zvi Schwartz, D.M.D, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering.

At the end of the semester, the course will culminate in a tasting competition with students vying to design the optimal cup of coffee. Schwartz, Stephen Robertson, of Blanchard’s Coffee, and Barbara D. Boyan, Ph.D., the Alice T. and William H. Goodwin, Jr. Dean of VCU Engineering, will serve as volunteer judges.