Teaching and Learning Forum 2007 Home Page

Category: Professional practice
Teaching and Learning Forum 2007 [ Refereed papers ]
Development of an advanced immersive learning environment for process engineering

Ian Cameron, Caroline Crosthwaite and Christine Norton
The University of Queensland
Nicoleta Balliu and Moses Tadé
Curtin University of Technology
David Brennan
Monash University
David Shallcross
Melbourne University
Geoff Barton
University of Sydney

This work presents a new development in process engineering learning environments through the use of spherical photography of real process plant coupled with an interactive user system. The system provides a vehicle for enhanced learning of process engineering principles for students and plant operators at various levels of understanding - from process plant awareness through details of process equipment, control principles and risk management concepts. Assessment techniques for students and operations personnel can be embedded in or linked to the system.

The system is constructed around a high resolution QuickTime VR movie that permits a comprehensive walk-through of the process unit being considered. Activities within the system can be conducted at various levels of detail, these being linked to the VR system. Guided tours with full commentary can be taken as well as free ranging tours to investigate aspects of design and operation. Process engineering principles are presented in a hierarchical and parallel structure that aids extensibility of the system and allows the user to drill down into the environment. Specially built animations give insight into the operations of the unit, sub-units and equipment. This will help users to understand process engineering principles such as heat and mass transfer. Unit and equipment dynamic simulations can be linked to the VR system thus aiding users to appreciate dynamics and control aspects of large-scale process plant.

The system is designed for engineering students across the curriculum and can be used by various course coordinators to complement other teaching and learning methods. The current version is under development with further expansion to be undertaken to include a broad range of process operation types.


There is an increasing lack of exposure for students to the realities of process engineering, particularly in obtaining the necessary practical experience to support improved understanding of process theory. The typical structure of the chemical engineering curriculum is progression of specific courses focusing on various chemical engineering fundamentals such as thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, heat and mass transfer, reaction engineering, process and control system synthesis. However bringing all of these concepts together in relationship to a real operating plant not only increases the relevance of these concepts, but also increases the interest and understanding in them. Industry has also identified a need for better training resources for its staff and operators.

An industrially focused, immersive learning environment is under development, building upon a prototype system developed at the University of Queensland. The existing prototype is based on the Crude Distillation Unit 2 (CDU2) at BP Oil Refinery (Bulwer Island), Brisbane. The present work aims to significantly extent the basic functionality of the present system by developing a range of new learning areas relevant to a broad range of chemical processes such as minerals, water treatment, dairy, pulp and wood, and pharmaceuticals. It will deploy the system nationally via the collaborating institutions and formally evaluate the learning outcomes.

Engineering students and industry employees will use this immersive environment that will provide a vehicle for deeper learning of process engineering. The format will be hierarchical in nature (see Figure 1), consisting of a number of levels of detail from the overall process unit, to certain process sub-units, down to specific operating equipment. Each level of detail can be broken down into a number of process systems related aspects, including the physical plant, chemical engineering principles, operations and control, risk management and plant economics. This structure allows easy extension to other process engineering areas as required. As well, the structure is not heavily dependent on the specific process example being used, thus allowing extension of generic process principles into process systems that deal with solids processing (e.g. cement, fertilisers, alumina), pharmaceuticals, food, minerals and many others. A 3D virtual reality (VR) resource (see Figures 2 and 6 for screen picture from this resource) of the actual plant will provide students with an interactive photographical interface to the plant environment. Internal workings and animations will allow the students and operators the ability to learn the process theory that would otherwise not be obvious from simply walking around the plant.

The work is a national initiative supported by the Carrick Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education Competitive Grant Scheme and involves collaboration between The University of Queensland, Curtin University of Technology, The University of Melbourne, Monash University, The University of Sydney and industrial companies.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Hierarchical design of VR system

Learning Environments

Overview of learning environments

Computer aided process engineering education is not a new concept. Westerberg was probably the first to utilise computer technology for process design education in 1971 (Lewin et al. 2002). Computer aided learning is becoming more popular due to the number of advantages that it offers, which include:

The potential limitations are:

These limitations do not impact the current immersive environment project. The project outcome will be a tool available 24 hours a day and easily accessed using a simple PC and Internet platform. The technology provides a method of learning that does not necessarily require a resource intensive one-to-one coaching to achieve educational goals.

Planned learning outcomes

The focus of the current system development is to address the following learning outcomes: The previously mentioned outcomes are being developed over a 3 stage development plan in conjunction with multimedia professionals, supporting companies and engineering academics and professionals. The following sections will outline the current development plans including the outcomes achieved at this time.

These developments will have the ability for course instructors to complement in-class material and tutorial sessions with focused activities within the immersive environment thus deepening the student's understanding and practice of concepts. It is hoped that students and operators will have an enhanced insight into a wide range of process systems related concepts, seeing in practice how these concepts and designs manifest themselves in real industrial operations.

The VR plant development, though initially focused on chemical engineering process principles, will provide the potential for a range of activities in other engineering disciplines such as environmental, mechanical and civil engineering.

Development concepts for the immersive learning environment

In the following sections we outline the general immersive system design concepts, as well as the use of the system and its expected outcomes in the students' learning. The current system will provide a well developed prototype for further expansion across other industry sectors as well as a deepening of the concepts that can be addressed within such a learning tool.

To aid in dissemination and widespread use of the system, a web browser delivery platform was chosen. All VR related work with embedded links was performed in LiveStage Pro software and the animations were developed using Flash technology from Macromedia. All work is done by professional multimedia experts and educational designers. Spoken materials were recorded with professional narrators.

Overall concepts

The system is developed in 3 key stages that cover: The following sections outline those stages.

Stage 1: Basic environment

This involves the development of the basic VR environment in which many of the subsequent activities take place. The quality of the imaging should be such that panning and zooming maintains excellent resolution and interactive features. Spherical digital photography of the CDU2 plant was performed using professional industrial photography at some 19 nodes or locations throughout the plant spread over 3 vertical levels.

The functionality includes:

Figure 2 shows part of the extensive VR facility, in this case from the top of the crude tower viewing the rest of CDU2.

Figure 2

Figure 2: QuickTime VR movie view of CDU2

To reinforce risk management principles and practices all users must complete an interactive induction that includes selection of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). Figure 3 shows part of that activity.

Figure 3

Figure 3: PPE activity for new users

Figure 4 shows part of the introduction section of the environment where the overall process is illustrated with users being able to choose certain products to follow through the process. Users are initially able to take a fully guided and narrated tour and then can subsequently move around the plant to any place of interest.

Figure 4

Figure 4: Overall process flowsheet

The current animations (Figure 5) show the temperature profile as materials flow through the process equipment, such as that for crude oil.

Figure 5

Figure 5: Crude oil process pathway

Other activities at this level involve equipment identification tasks across the plant and basic navigation through the unit for familiarisation.

The activities completed for BP refinery are now a basis for development of others related to different industries. A preliminary planning for activities related to the Bayer process in collaboration with Alcoa Alumina is currently being undertaken.

Stage 2: Intermediate interactivity

Stage 2 takes a deeper and more fundamental view of part of the process by now focusing on key issues in process engineering that could include mass and heat transfer, processing goals, internal behaviour of equipment such as fluid flow patterns in separation devices or droplet settling in two phase decanters. It also allows users to explore the details of processing equipment.

To develop this type of functionality, emphasis has been placed on the pre-flash sub-unit of the crude unit which has the goal of reducing the quantity of low boiling point materials in the crude feed to the main crude tower. Figure 6 shows this unit within the VR system.

Figure 6

Figure 6: CDU2 Preflash sub-unit

At this level of interactivity the following functionality is being developed in the system:

These issues are pursued via the VR imaging of the plant with details, questions and data appearing in separate windows of the immersive system. Figure 7 shows an insight into a distillation process. By changing the liquid and vapour flow rates as well as the design configuration of the column trays, the students and operators can visualise and better understand the system dynamics under different design and operating conditions.

Figure 7

Figure 7: Phase behaviour during distillation process

Besides the design and equipment based issues it is possible at this level of interactivity to introduce detailed issues of risk management. These can include:

Stage 2 represents many opportunities to develop interesting interactive exercises and challenges for students and operations personnel to help deepen their insights and understanding of process engineering and operations. The potential to tackle a wide range of process systems aspects as set out in Figure 1 is considerable.

Stage 3: Advanced interactivity

The purpose of stage 3 is to address interactivity that is linked to dynamic simulations of the process. In this case we will concentrate on the preflash unit to illustrate for the user and engage the user in control and dynamic issues. Figure 8 shows the reproduction of the DCS screen of the unit that forms the basis for a full dynamic model built in Hysys.

This interactivity will allow users to perform dynamic experiments on the plant such as adjusting feed rates and conditions, reflux flows and column conditions. It will thus provide a means to investigate many dynamic scenarios and then see the effects of changes on the plant.

Figure 8

Figure 8: CDU2 Preflash sub-unit

Figure 9 shows a prototype isolation activity. The pump isolation exercise exemplifies the use of GRAFCET diagrams to manage a procedural task. In this activity, students perform a pump shutdown by mimicking all the actions required within the VR environment. By turning valves, securing spare pumps and opening drains, the student appreciates the detail required by the procedure and the critical importance of each step. They are also able to realise the checking mechanisms and the regimented correctness facilitated by the GRAFCET structure.

Operationally, a student gains a better appreciation of aspects that they may have to consider when designing such a system. For example, they have to incorporate drains, spare pumps and utilities that facilitate taking the pump out of service for maintenance. Valves have to be accessible and pump systems integrated and duplicated so that tasks such as a pump shutdown are performed easily and consistently. Simply providing access to visual graphics of a real operational pump and its ancillary equipment is sufficient to enlighten students on the relative size, shape and feel of a process plant.

To a plant operator, the level of training offered by the pump isolation exercise is unsurpassed. Unaffected by weather, time of day, risk of wrongdoing and without requiring strict supervision, a novice operator is able to practice his or her craft. A repetitive process such as a pump shutdown is rudimentary but without room for error; hence it is ideally suited to a VR based activity programmed using the GRAFCET philosophy. This program facilitates a consistent level of training from a simple internet platform without requiring resource intensive training regime.

Other advanced interactive issues that could be considered include emergency response to emergencies and assessing user actions under a variety of hazardous scenarios. Further work in this area remains to be investigated.

Figure 9

Figure 9: The pump isolation activity

Deployment and testing

Important aspects of such an immersive system is its acceptance, useability and effectiveness in enhancing learning for a range of potential users. The user profile is important.

Chemical engineering students will be the main target audience for such a system, especially at years 2, 3 and 4. This cohort is typically 40% female. Learning styles for different student groups needs consideration in developing such systems. First year students will also find the system useful in becoming familiar with certain elementary aspects of process and chemical engineering. Other engineering disciplines would also find use for the system, especially mechanical as well as electrical engineers interested in control. In these disciplines the gender mix changes significantly, typically being around 10% female.

Pedagogical evaluation will be conducted by laboratory instructors, in this case course coordinators and industry operator trainers to assess the quality of the content, its compatibility with the curriculum requirements, the utility of the system as a teaching tool and its ability to cater to the learning needs of the students.

Field evaluation should also be conducted through testing the product on the future users. Not only should the immediate student learning be observed but interviews or a questionnaire should also be conducted with students after using the program. This allows the content, layout, presentation and effectiveness to be gauged which is particularly useful for the project, as development will be conducted in stages and future stages will rely on feedback from current versions.

Professional help in assessment of the system is being undertaken as part of the development and this will be fed back into the on-going development of the environment.


The authors express their sincere thanks for the financial support from The Carrick Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education's Competitive Grant, The University of Queensland Vice-Chancellor's Strategic Fund as well as funding from BP Refinery (Bulwer Island) and Alcoa Alumina. We gratefully acknowledge the contributions of personnel from the BP CDU2 Crude Unit area at Bulwer Island, Alcoa Alumina and also multimedia and instructional design staff at the Teaching and Educational Development Institute (TEDI) at the University of Queensland.

A substantial amount of the funding was derived from the Australian Awards for University Teaching (AAUT) for one of the authors (ITC).


Cameron, I.T., Crosthwaite, C.A., Donaldson, A., Samsudi, H. & Fry, M. (2005). An immersive learning environment for process engineering using real VR. Chemeca 2005, Brisbane, Australia.

Donaldson, A. (2005). An industrial immersive learning environment: Design, development and evaluation of the physical and chemical educational aspects. CHEE4006 Engineering Individual Inquiry, School of Engineering, The University of Queensland.

Lewin, D. R., Seider, W. D. & Seader, J. D. (2002). Integrated process design. Computers & Chemical Engineering, 26, 295-306.

Murphy, T., Gomes, V. G. & Romagnoli, J. A. (2002). Facilitating process control teaching and learning in a virtual laboratory environment. Computer Applications in Engineering Education,10, 79-87.

Samsudi, H. (2005). Immersive learning environment tool: Dynamic simulation as an aid to deep learning within a virtual reality environment. CHEE4006 Engineering Individual Inquiry, School of Engineering, The University of Queensland.

Authors: Professor Ian Cameron: Currently, Head of Chemical Engineering at the University of Queensland, Ian is internationally known in the area of process systems engineering and risk management. He is a chemical engineering graduate of the UNSW, has a masters degree from the University of Washington and PhD from Imperial College London. Ian spent 9 years in the process design and operations with CSR Ltd, followed by 3 years fulltime as a process engineering consultant for UNIDO in Argentina and a further 6 years part-time consulting to the Turkish Government. He has also undertaken numerous educational initiatives since joining UQ and was the AAUT 2003 Prime Minister's Teacher of the Year award winner.

Professor Moses Tadé: Currently Head of Chemical Engineering at Curtin Univerity of Technology, Moses is well known internationally for his contributions in the areas of biochemical engineering, as well as process modelling, simulation, optimisation and control. Moses has his undergraduate qualification in chemical engineering and has a PhD from Queen's University, Canada. He is active in educational development and has strong links to industry.

A/Prof David Shallcross: David is an associate professor in Chemical Engineering with interests in engineering education, water purification and sustainable technologies. He is foundation editor for Education for Chemical Engineers, a new journal of the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) in the UK and Australia. He brings a wealth of experience in engineering education practice to the collaboration and important links to the profession

A/Prof David Brennan: David has a chemical engineering degree from UNSW and a PhD from University of Melbourne. He has worked in several major process industries and has extensive process experience gained over many years of industrial collaboration. David has been active in many educational initiatives during his career with a special interest in enhancing understanding of students in the area of process operations.

A/Prof Geoff Barton: Geoff has both his undergraduate chemical engineering degree and his PhD from the University of Sydney. He is currently Head of Department. His research interests are in the area of process systems engineering where he has made significant contributions in control application and theory. He has undertaken numerous educational initiatives over many years involving the teaching and application of process control and the use of modelling.

Dr Nicoleta Balliu (presenting author): Nicoleta is a chemical engineering graduate from the University of Bucharest, Romania. After working as a design engineer for a major consultancy in Romania, she moved to Australia in 1999. In 2005 she graduated with a PhD from University of Queensland. During her PhD studies she got involved in various teaching and learning activities. She is now a lecturer at CUT, working in the area of modelling and simulation with interest in enhancing students' understanding of real plant operations. Postal: GPO Box U1987, Perth, Western Australia 6845. Email: N.Balliu@curtin.edu.au

Mrs Christine Norton: Christine graduated from UQ in 1998 as Chemical Engineering Scholar with first class honours and a University Gold Medal. From University, she was recruited by BP Bulwer Island Refinery working in a number of roles ranging from an Advanced Control Engineer to a LPG/Natural Gas Planning Analyst. Her notable achievements include the development of a Hydrocracking Training simulator adopted worldwide in BP and a Diversity and Inclusion Program which won her and two colleagues the highest BP accolades in the region - an Australasian Helios award. Now as a mother of two, Christine has returned to her educational roots at the University of Queensland.

Please cite as: Cameron, I., Crosthwaite, C., Norton, C., Balliu, N., Tadé, M., Brennan, D., Shallcross, D. and Barton, G. (2007). Development of an advanced immersive learning environment for process engineering. In Student Engagement. Proceedings of the 16th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 30-31 January 2007. Perth: The University of Western Australia. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2007/refereed/balliu.html

Copyright 2007 Ian Cameron, Caroline Crosthwaite, Christine Norton, Nicoleta Balliu, Moses Tadé, David Brennan, David Shallcross and Geoff Barton. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.

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Created 18 Jan 2007. Last revision: 18 Jan 2007.