College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Alumna engineers reliability for biofuel production at Flint Hills Resources

Kristine Vanderwiel, a reliability engineer for Flint Hills Resources, performs daily analyses and heads projects that upgrade plant equipment for biofuel production.

Kristine Vanderwiel (BS’11 Agricultural Engineering) developed a passion for energy efficiency in the high school classroom when she wrote an English paper about renewable fuels. She had researched biofuels, solar energy and wind energy for her paper, but she said it was biofuels that caught her attention.

“I thought the idea of turning plant biomass, such as corn, into biofuels was exciting,” she said. That excitement proved to be a motivating factor later on when she took a campus tour of Iowa State University.

During her visit, Vanderwiel had a general idea of what she wanted to study – engineering. She hadn’t decided which field, but that’s when her tour guide introduced her to the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering.

She remembered that he showed her through the John Deere Engines Laboratory where agricultural engineering students take apart and reassemble engines for coursework.

Vanderwiel said the lab tour helped affirm her decision to enroll in the agricultural engineering program with a power machinery option. “I wanted to design tractors and other farming machinery that could run off of biofuels,” she said.

However, her initial goal changed as she became more interested in biological and chemical courses. She eventually switched from the power machinery option to food and biosystems option with a new focus – to develop the fuels that power farming machinery.

After Vanderwiel graduated, she moved to Wisconsin in June 2012 where she worked for Frito-Lay as an operations resource, supervising the front line operators that were responsible for the Doritos and Tostitos production lines.

Vanderwiel said she had initially expected to work on system maintenance and improvement projects that directly applied her engineering background. However, the position gave her opportunities to improve her skills in communication, troubleshooting and decision-making.

“I believe everyone should get to experience a supervisory role at some point in his or her career,” she said.

After a year at Frito-Lay, Vanderwiel found an opportunity to work in biofuels. She accepted a position to be a reliability engineer for Flint Hills Resources – a refining, chemicals and biofuels company – and returned to Iowa in July 2013.

She now leads projects that upgrade plant equipment, which includes a project to replace a wet cake screw conveyor. A screw conveyor is essentially a trough with an auger on the inside that rotates to move a byproduct of ethanol, called modified wet distillers grains (wet cake), from the dryer to the storage pad.

“It’s my job to look at it and make sure we’re putting the right bearings into the screw and that we’re supporting it correctly so that we install a reliable system that will last for many years,” she explained.

As a reliability engineer, Vanderwiel also performs daily analyses on her plant’s equipment to detect and fix problems before they arise and ensures that biofuel production runs efficiently.