Zachery Knudsen jokes that he worked in just about every job you can have without going to college before he decided to pursue chemical engineering at Oregon State.
Never afraid of hard work, the 25-year-old junior from Las Vegas tried his hand at all kinds of jobs in construction, as a mechanic, even working in restaurants. But he had yet to find a job he wanted to make a career out of.
Last summer, Zach went to Longview, Washington, to work as an engineering intern at KapStone Paper and Packaging’s huge mill there. From the beginning, he says, his experience there confirmed that he had made the right career choice.
“During the first week, I shadowed one of the full-time engineers,” he said. “One of the dryers wasn’t working properly, and nobody could figure out why. This guy went out there, checked things out, got into the controls, changed a few things — and it started working again. I thought to myself: ‘This is exactly why I got into engineering, to solve problems.’”
In any production environment, there are always problems to be solved. KapStone’s Longview mill is huge, with a footprint of more than 100 acres and a capacity of 1.45 million tons per year. It’s also an older facility, operating on the same site since 1927. The problem Zach worked on isn’t very small or very new either: His work was part of the preparations for an overhaul to the mill’s white water system, a significant plant upgrade that the company has been planning for years.
On its way to becoming paper, wood pulp is laid out on wire supports that convey it through the mill. The pulp is sprayed with water from showers to keep it manageable and to help the fibers align properly. The wire itself is also sprayed to keep it clean and free of pulp residue. The used shower water, now an opaque waste product called “white water,” drips into a catch basin beneath the wire to be recycled.
Problems arise when pulp fibers suspended in recycled white water become trapped in shower nozzles, clogging them. This results in increased downtime for maintenance and, consequently, reduced production. Unchecked, it can lead to equipment failure and product losses. All of these are unrecoverable costs to the company. Zach’s work focused on two of the five machines running at the mill.
“I worked on understanding how all the water was fed, where the water was going, basically doing a big mass balance/energy balance around the whole machine,” Zach said. “They use WinGems modeling software, pretty much the standard in the pulp and paper industry. They had already built a model of what the white water system looked like. I just made improvements to it, like determining more precisely how much water was really in the system, determining the locations of all of the pumps, and just trying to get the numbers as close as possible to where the machines really are.”
Once that work was done, the team performed an economic analysis and determined that a whitewater filtration project could save the company about $800,000 per year, with a return on investment of 130-150 percent.
Zach says his summer experience gave him an opportunity to put some of his classroom learning to use in the real world.
“I used a lot of the ideas I learned in mass balances and energy balances, process dynamics, and problem solving in general. Eventually, I’ll take process controls, and I got a lot of hands-on exposure to that while I was there, too.”
Spending the summer at KapStone confirmed a few things for Zach. He says he now knows for certain that he wants to be in industry, that he wants to stay on the West Coast, and that he picked the right major.
“I saw what the full-time engineers were doing, and that looked like something I want to be doing,” he said. “After working so many jobs, this reassured me that this is exactly what I want to do.”