ECU engineering students help companies reduce waste through internship program

At a large manufacturing plant outside the small town of Tarboro, East Carolina University student Behzad Zeinolabedini looks toward the ceiling. Amid the spooling strands of copper wire that will eventually form industrial electric cables, the new LED ceiling lights stand out against the older fluorescents that cast a pale yellowish tinge.

It may not seem like much, but with hundreds, if not thousands, of bulbs in the five-story complex, the switch to the more efficient LED lights is helping reduce energy and waste, while paying off for the company, LS Cable & System USA.

Zeinolabedini, a master’s mechanical engineering student, participated in a unique summer internship program through ECU’s Center for Sustainable Energy and Environmental Engineering (CSE3) that focused on pollution prevention.

The innovative program, funded through a $350,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, places students inside manufacturing facilities. Their goals are to help companies reduce pollution, conserve water and save energy through lean and green practices.

Watch with closed captions on YouTube. ECU video by Dennis Brathwaite.

“This is an amazing program, because at no cost to the manufacturing facilities, engineering students, with the support of ECU subject matter experts, conduct energy assessments and lean recommendations that could save significant amounts of money and help curb climate emissions — all while providing ECU students with real-world experience and possible job connections once they graduate,” said Melissa Nolan, pollution prevention specialist for CSE3. “It is a mutually beneficial relationship that supports regional transformation in the expanding manufacturing industries in and around Greenville.”

The Interns

Zeinolabedini was one of seven pollution prevention interns this summer. He admits he knew little about the process LS Cable uses to create its high-capacity electric transmission lines that power facilities throughout the country. The internship allowed him to look at the company’s facility and explore its use of energy in everything from the manufacturing machines to the refrigerator in the breakroom. He conducted calculations and cost analysis in making recommendations and presented a final report to company and CSE3 representatives, literally shining light on one particular area.

“I recommended to use LEDs instead of using fluorescent light bulbs,” he said. “That was a huge change in the energy saving and cost saving.”

Zeinolabedini said the internship allowed him to make a difference and experience the work atmosphere of a large manufacturing company.

“I really enjoyed it here because the people who are working here are so supportive and so kind,” Zeinolabedini said. “I never thought that I’m an intern here. They (treated) me like I had been working here for some years.”

ECU engineering graduate student Emre Ugur Bal said the chance to intern at Hyster-Yale Group was a great learning experience. (Photo by Rhett Butler)

Emre Ugur Bal said his undergraduate degree in energy systems engineering and his master’s work in mechanical engineering at ECU provided him the necessary knowledge and background to intern with Hyster-Yale Group in Greenville.

“It was so much fun. It was a great experience,” he said. “Being able to apply your expertise into a real-life problem, it’s a great feeling.”

The internship confirmed his career goals.

“After my graduation, I want to work in industry and I want to keep doing this exact thing, apply my knowledge and become a successful engineer in industry,” he said. “This internship was a demonstration of that.”

Erica Henry, an undergraduate engineering student, spent her summer in a Rocky Mount plant.

“It was really good,” Henry said of her internship. “It was unusual because it was an old textile facility that had been repurposed, so it had some old traits.”

Undergraduate engineering student Daniel Franklin said he learned a lot during his internship at Smithfield Packing in Kinston.

“You had to have so much knowledge of all these systems — electrical, water, steam, air conditioning,” he said. “It was really interesting.”

Industry Support

Dr. Tarek Abdel-Salam, engineering professor and director of CSE3, said the program would not be possible without the support of the companies that agree to host the ECU students.

Michael Kriebel, engineering manager at LS Cable, said the internship program allowed the company to partner with ECU to bring in the next generation of engineers. It also provided another person dedicated to sustainability, which could help the company’s bottom line.

“Obviously, we want to reduce costs as any business does by saving on utilities and other such things like that,” he said.

Kriebel said Zeinolabedini provided important observations and fit in well with the culture of the company and its employees.

“We loved having him in here — a new set of fresh eyes, the enthusiasm, works well with the other people, and they like to see someone coming in and working with them also, so it’s been very beneficial for us and hopefully for Behzad also,” Kriebel said.

From food and beverage processing plants to chemical manufacturing and fabrication industries, the ECU internship program engages companies to the benefit of the students, the businesses and the environment.

Stephen Kelly, environmental health and safety manager at Hyster-Yale in Greenville, said the company embraces its corporate responsibility to minimize its impact on the environment and conserve natural resources, making the internship program a good match. He also said he could recruit future employees through the program.

“We love having interns come to work with Hyster-Yale,” he said. “We look forward to continuing to work on this partnership with ECU and really helping to develop our future team.”

Pollution Prevention Week

This week marks Pollution Prevention Week, an EPA-promoted focus on waste reduction at home, at work and in the community. It’s a point of emphasis for CSE3, which sponsors pollution prevention webinars, workshops and training courses with subject matter experts.

The next webinar — “Harnessing Biochar for Soil Amendment and Green Concrete Advancements” — is scheduled for Sept. 26. The center is also hosting a one-day, in-person course on Sept. 28 with ECU’s Dr. Jimmy Linn providing information on HVAC energy efficiency improvement and decarbonization.

As for this week, CSE3 has an information table inside the atrium of the Science and Technology Building. Faculty and center representatives are also visiting engineering classes to provide information about CSE3 and its student research and internship opportunities.

For more information and program registration, visit the center’s website.

The Center for Sustainable Energy and Environmental Engineering EPA team includes faculty, staff and students dedicated to pollution prevention. (Photo by Ken Buday)