Making a difference: Ken Sury Memorial Prize in Chemical Engineering Design honours an engineer of creative intellect and inspires students

The late Ken Sury, seen here hiking to Machu Piccu, is being remembered through a gift for student capstone projects

(Edmonton) We will not tip-toe around the fact that the term “capstone design project” provokes varying degrees of trepidation among students in the final year of their engineering education. Among alumni, they bring back memories of struggle and success, hours of iterative design engineering and, ultimately, feelings of accomplishment.

The reward for excellence in these projects, which demand students draw on everything they’ve been taught in their engineering education, goes beyond good grades: sometimes a capstone project is a path to a career; and sometimes a student team’s work has a lasting impact.

Last fall, for example, a Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering capstone team successfully designed a fractionation pilot plant for SBI BioEnergy. The Edmonton company, which signed on as an industrial client with the capstone course, is building a biorefinery that will be turning canola oil and animal fats into a renewable fuel that can replace or be blended with diesel fuel. With a few tweaks, the company is going to be using the design created by the student team.

This is the kind of project that would have captured the fertile imagination of Ken Sury, an engineer whose curiosity and deep understanding of scientific fundamentals led him to a versatile, creative career.

In 1981 Ken joined Imperial Oil in Calgary, where he found his professional home and his work family. He remained with Imperial for 35 years, working in coal mining, heavy oil and oil sands research. His last position was as senior technical advisor to Imperial’s Kearl oil sands project and he was a key part of its many technical achievements as well as its commercial success.  Ken believed that engineering innovation was driven by team work.  As one of five “Artists of invention” profiled in Imperial Oil’s magazine The Review in 2010, he said that inventing is more often than not a team effort: “Every time we hit a snag, I gather the troops and say, ‘Let’s talk about it,’ ” he said. Ken had almost 20 oil sands-related patents to his name and was Imperial’s undisputed expert in all technologies related to mined oil sands processing. His work on Paraffinic Froth Treatment was recognized by ExxonMobil in 2013, when he shared in the Process Innovator of the Year award.

In the spring of 2015 Ken was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He fought the disease with his usual courage and resilience but did not survive.

To honour Ken’s memory his wife, Chitra, has established the Ken Sury Memorial Prize in Chemical Engineering Design, for Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering students completing their capstone projects. The projects demand creative thinking, sensible design, and a thorough understanding of a client’s needs—just the sort of task Ken thrived on as an engineer and mentor.

Marnie Jamieson, an industrial professor in chemical process design and a member of the team that teaches the chemical engineering capstone course says capstone projects in all disciplines are “innovation incubators” that help in the transition from student to Engineer-In-Training. Design Engineering is a creative process requiring ideas and inputs from many stakeholders and sources. The legacy of this gift, she adds, will be in the form of engineering innovation and collaboration. “Like Ken Sury, we ask students, “Can we do it better, faster, sooner?  What prevents us from doing it better?” she says.

“What I’ve learned from teaching and mentoring students working on design projects for eight years now is that they work best when they know that the work they’re doing is meaningful and can make a difference,” she says. “They’re collaborating and looking for innovative solutions. And that raises the profile of their work. An award recognizing collaboration and innovation can inspire students, attract project sponsors and even potential investors.”

Supporting students in the capstone projects matches Ken’s interests to a tee, says Chitra.

“This fits so well with everything Ken stood for,” she says. “Although he worked in the oil sands, his interest was, broadly speaking, science and technology. He was interested in innovation. And there’s a very strong team-building and mentorship angle to the design course, which is what Ken was all about.”

At work and in his private life, she recalls, Ken had a nurturing quality to his character. It’s hard to think of an engineer who doesn’t secretly hope their offspring will follow them into the profession, but Chitra and their daughter Deepa fondly remember that Ken provided total and unequivocal support to Deepa when she chose a career as an artist. He might have felt that there is as much science and math and creativity and beauty in engineering as there is in music and was one of his daughter’s biggest fans.

Ken and Chitra both grew up in India. Ken earned his degree in chemistry from Madras University and an engineering degree from the prestigious Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. Chitra studied economics, earning her master’s degree at the Delhi School of Economics and going on to complete a PhD at the University of Rochester, New York.

Ken immigrated to Canada, as his two elder brothers had done. After a short stint at the Iron Ore Company of Canada, he completed a master’s degree in minerals processing at Penn State University. It was in Pennsylvania that the two met, thorough mutual friends.

Ken moved to Canada in 1981 and in 1985 Chitra joined him, as his wife. While Ken worked at Imperial, Chitra was an assistant professor of economics at the U of A.

It wasn’t long after arriving in Canada that the coal industry experienced a sharp downturn and Ken had to adapt to oil sands engineering—a leap that led to one of his most significant inventions, in low-energy extraction technology.

Ken took every change, positive or negative, in stride.  This resilience was a quality that Chitra always admired.

“He wasn’t brought down by the downswings,” she recalls. “He sort of said “OK, this is the way it is—what do we do now?” It was the same with the successes. He really didn’t dwell on it or give it too much importance. By the time the award or recognition came around he was already onto the next thing.”

Ultimately, the family hopes the award gives students the motivation to work a little harder, to take risks, and to excel in their capstone projects, and that it will help young students find their own engineering paths, as Ken found his.

“I’m hoping it will draw more people into the program who hadn’t thought of it,” says Chitra. “They might look into it and see the value—that this could help students who are deciding what to specialize in or even younger students deciding to go into engineering or not.”