The University Record, September 3, 1996

Inside-out learning

With VICHER, U-M students can go 'inside' this catalyst pellet to 'see' chemical reactions at the molecular level.

Photo Credit: John T. Bell

How do you give engineering students some hands-on experience in controlling a chemical reaction chamber without risking an explosion on campus? How do you explain packed bed reactor processing to students who have never seen the inside of a chemical plant? How do you help them visualize the function of a catalyst at the molecular level?

Chemical engineering instructor John T. Bell, working with Prof. H. Scott Fogler, solves these problems by taking students inside a virtual chemical plant. Using virtual reality educational software called VICHER and a head-mounted display, chemical engineering students can "walk through" a modern chemical plant, see color photographs of equipment in the plant, observe chemical and physical reactions as they take place, and safely experiment with mechanisms to control those reactions.

Bell's virtual reality modules are tested by U-M engineering juniors and seniors enrolled in reactor design and chemical plant design courses. Bell uses the students' comments and suggestions to improve the modules and learn more about the benefits and limitations of virtual reality as an educational tool. Once perfected, the modules will be distributed to engineering schools nationwide by CACHE Corp. Bell's ultimate goal: To create a computer simulation so realistic it is indistinguishable from the real world.

More information on this and other educational applications of virtual reality is available on the U-M Virtual Reality in Chemical Engineering Lab's web site at