Ask the President (Day 43)

Geoff Maitland IChemE PresidentAccountability, openness and transparency. Three important words in the governance of any charitable and membership organisation like IChemE.

IChemE also has a wealth of knowledge and history acquired since we were established in 1922, and an active membership eager to share their experiences and expertise to advance the profession.

As your President, I also want to be accountable and share my knowledge where I can. So, throughout my presidency, there is an open invitation to send in your reasonable questions and thoughts on issues relating to our technical policy – Chemical Engineering Matters. Every now and again, we’ll publish the answers starting with today.

It’s worth reminding you at this stage that IChemE has a great team of people at its offices around the world able to answer your various questions about membership, subscriptions, qualifications, training courses, events and lots more.

This first set of questions were posed during a recent webinar replaying my presidential address, which is now available online.

Q&AQ: How do we meet the shortage of lecturers in chemical engineering departments as a result of the success of the whynotchemeng initiative?

A: We need to ensure that salaries for young academics are competitive with industry. We need to explore the possibility of joint appointments with industry and ensure that the metrics for research excellence in the UK REF evaluation system (and equivalent schemes in other countries) include industrial R&D experience as well as research publications.

Grant income also needs to be available so that universities are encouraged to recruit people who have spent significant periods of their career in industry and these people feel valued and encouraged to make career switches, particularly mid- and late-career. This would bring much valued experience of industrial engineering practice into undergraduate and postgraduate courses.

Q&AQ: What advice do you have for a young academic starting out in chemical engineering today? Should they pursue a similar academia-industry-academia pathway as you did?

A: I recommend developing a network of industrial as well as academic contacts, using more experienced colleagues to help with this, and to use this to engage companies as true collaborators and co-funders on research grants. By taking seriously the idea of demonstrating ‘engineering impact’ of your research and working with industry on translation of research into applications (including exploring spin-out company options), you will find it much easier to make the case for promotion, chartered status and other professional recognition as your career develops, such as FIChemE and FREng.

Getting involved in design project facilitation and linking this to both your research and industrial engagement is another very good route to broadening your experience and extending the impact of your work. If the opportunities for secondments to industry (or government and the public sector) arise, there are now several good fellowship schemes to enable this; the experience of time in a different environment is invaluable.

Q&AQ: I would be interested to hear how the professor thinks we can help influence the policies of countries (such as China) on the issue of climate change.

A: Joint activity (e.g. workshops, fact-finding missions) between professional engineering institutions is one way to exchange both technology options and carbon mitigation aspirations. There is significant international collaboration with China on carbon capture and storage and improving power cycle efficiency. As experience of how to use fossil fuels more cleanly, substitute gas for coal etc. increases, these channels can be used to inform governments about the most cost effective solutions.

We need to recognise that the drivers to combat climate change differ from country to country and that dialogue between engineers on a global basis and engagement with governments on technical options which address these drivers is an essential part of accelerating action on an international scale.

Q&AQ: Is there funding available for climate change research? For example I would like to pilot a system to recover CO2 from air. My process concept is ready. I need to pilot it. Funding required is moderate.

A: There is increasing funding for research on novel carbon capture and storage approaches from government agencies in many countries. This usually requires alliances to be made – between academic groups and industry or by individuals with a company with interest in CCS or maybe a venture capital company.

This will all be country specific, but a good way to find potential funding for projects like this is to contact people working in similar areas eg Klaus Lackner at the University of Columbia, US. Fixing CO2 from the atmosphere is one of the more challenging routes…at 400ppm concentrations, the size of adsorption towers and/or the time required to capture CO2 on a commercially scale make achieving commercial viability very challenging.

You might be able to apply for the Dhirubhai Ambani Award for Outstanding Chemical Engineering Innovation for the Resource-Poor People – sponsored by Reliance Industries in India.

Q&AQ: IChemE is not recognised in France. How can you help IChemE to be recognised in France?

A: This question highlights that IChemE accreditation of chemical engineering courses is not widespread in France. However, we do accredit a chemical engineering degree at ENSIC, Nancy and we are looking at the possibility of setting up a Member Group in France, where there are over 140 members, at some point in the future.

Generally, individuals who join IChemE and gain chartered status have similar advantages to chemical engineers who have an international career or are contemplating career moves. It is a measure of engineering achievement and responsibility that enhances transfer-ability and movement between sectors.

Many international companies operating within France will recognise and encourage IChemE membership, but much remains to be done in extending recognition. Also engagement in some IChemE training and events is now possible through virtual meetings and webinars.

IChemE and its French counterpart are both members of the European Federation of Chemical Engineers (EFCE) and we work hard through this to share good practice and extol the virtues of the accreditation system.

The protracted discussions on the acceptability or otherwise of the Washington Accord versus the need in many countries, including those within IChemE’s main spheres of influence, for a Master’s level qualification in order to be recognised as CEng or equivalent, indicates that universal agreement on this issue is still some way off.

Q&AQ: What about graduates leaving the chemical engineering profession after they have finished their degree? e.g. a lot of graduates going over to Finance.

A: I do not see this as entirely a bad thing in that the more engineers trained in quantitative problem solving who work in the financial and commercial sectors the better, particularly if the chemical engineering culture and methodologies for risk management can be adopted and we avoid any repetition of the 2008 banking meltdown.

However, this does mean that much of the chemical engineering talent does not then go into the process industries. So we need to increase the number that do by continuing to build the number of students wanting to study our subject, which in the UK and elsewhere is a major success story of the past decade.

This needs to be coupled with universities reinforcing the excitement and challenge of technical careers in their courses, with extended industry contact, and by industry recognising that they need to compete financially to create a level playing field to attract the very best people to remain in the engineering function for much of their career.

IChemE has, I believe, a key role to play here, both to enthuse and to work with industries who are desperate for chemical engineers to make graduates aware of the expanding opportunities beyond the traditional employment sectors e.g. in food, water, pharma (which still cannot attract as many engineers as it needs).

Q&AQ: How are you going to encourage more young people to enter into the profession? How will you appeal to a younger target audience?

A: It’s important that we all promote the excitement and achievement of chemical engineering to improve the quality of life all around us. Young people need to see all the things we do across all the sectors we operate in, so that they see chemical engineering as the route by which they can change the world and get involved in issues they feel passionate about.

The success of the ‘whynotchemeng’ campaign is testament to how volunteers in IChemE can share their experience and convey the excitement of the subject to a much wider audience of students at school.

The trebling of UK undergraduate course intake in a decade shows that the message has got through. We need to continue this and not get complacent and to transfer this model to other areas of the world where there is still a communication gap with the school population.

However the challenge now is to ensure that universities have increased resources, including quality staff, to continue to provide the same quality of education with increased numbers, and that industry can provide fulfilling careers for the increased number of engineers that they have been clamouring for.

Q&AQ: Do chemical engineers have a negative image in the media?

A: In many ways they do, because the majority of the time we are called upon to explain why processes have ‘failed’ when there is an accident or a major pollution problem. Also, the perception of an engineer in many places is still that of a mechanic rather than a professional expert or innovator who makes things happen and is responsible for all the things that surround us that make up the quality of life in the 21st Century, most of which is just taken for granted.

So this is why we should be more pro-active, with the media and with public engagement, to take every opportunity to explain all the good things that result from chemical engineering and exactly what we spend our time doing to provide energy, materials, personal products, pharmaceuticals…and to do this as safely as possible with minimal harm to the environment. We have got to use the media rather than the other way round!

Q&AQ: Is a personal carbon allowance realistic and how would it be monitored?

A: The advantage of allocating personal carbon allowances is that it passes much of the responsibility for reducing carbon emissions to the individual and makes it clear that the task of reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the responsibility of all of us, not just power companies and legislators.

In particular, 50 per cent of the huge reductions in emissions that we need to make by 2050 will come from improvements in energy efficiency, the low lying fruit of using less energy that can only be done at the individual level…using less energy in the home, cars which do 60 mpg rather than 30 mpg, insulating buildings etc.

We could use these as incentives for households to install energy saving devices, local power generation by solar, wind, ground source heat pumps etc., the cost of which could be offset against any personal carbon charges. Monitoring personal energy usage and directly attributable emissions is a challenge, but with domestic metering, car ownership and hire records, possibilities for remote mileage recording, business energy utilisation, domestic self-energy records etc, all this should be achievable in much the way as car insurance, licensing and MOT records are now all digital.

The possibility of rebates or selling credits for low energy users and incentives for the costs of installing energy saving devices and processes should mean that such a scheme incentivises rather than penalises. DECC and other bodies have done several studies on how carbon allowance schemes might work and the merits and potential disadvantages, so we can build on these to have rapid implementation once there is the political will.

Q&AQ: Please explain the prospects for Indian students to come for studies in chemical engineering field. Also please explain experienced chemical engineer’s prospects in UK.

A: India has a very active chemical engineering community and all the Indian Institutes of Technology run good courses. Some students opt to study overseas, especially in the UK and USA. Since the norm in Indian courses is to obtain vacation experience overseas, many students do summer internships in the US and Europe.

IChemE can help with providing more detailed information for interested students. There is a shortage of young and experienced chemical engineers in the UK, especially in some of the newer ‘users’ of chemical engineering such as the food, pharma, water, materials and medical areas. Again IChemE can give assistance on opportunities and companies to contact.

Take a look at the IChemE website for more information on career prospects, or visit the tcetoday website and search jobs.

Q&AQ: IChemE recently came out in support of fracking in the UK. Is this a stance that you agree with and how do you see this industry developing over the next 10 years?

A: I fully support the extraction of methane, the cleanest fossil fuel, from shale gas deposits by the use of hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’ as it is commonly called, linked to horizontal well technology. The latter not only has the advantage of maximising the contact of a producing well with the shale gas seams but also enables the well-head to be located some distance (many kilometres) from the gas deposits. This enables the relatively small footprint of the well-head can be placed in an appropriate location, often screened by trees from view, remote from the gas source where these are in sensitive areas of natural beauty or urban development.

With good engineering design and practice, and sound regulation, the major concerns about contaminating drinking water aquifers and creating damaging earth tremors can be avoided. There will be short-term disruption (of a few months) to local communities whilst the drilling and fracturing equipment comes on site to create and fracture the wells, install delivery pipelines to connect to the gas grid (no different from existing gas mains) and leave a relatively unobtrusive well-head to feed the gas into the grid.

The government has quite rightly proposed significant compensation payments to local communities and to those under whose land access is required, which will hopefully be used to the general benefit of the area.

There will undoubtedly be inconvenience during this installation phase and some short-term temporary environmental impact, but the long-term environmental benefit to all of a 50 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by adding to our gas supplies to facilitate replacement of coal by gas for power and petrochemicals production is major and is essential if we are to meet the carbon mitigation targets set by the UK government for 2030 and 2050.

In addition this will greatly enhance the UK’s security of energy supply; North Sea gas is diminishing and currently more than 50% of our gas is imported, from Norway and as LNG from Qatar.

Given recent concerns about the fragility of gas supplies from both Russia and the Middle East, becoming self-sufficient in energy again, just as the US has with its exploitation of shale gas, will be of long-term benefit.

The UK and European shale gas may not be as easy and cheap to exploit as that in the US, due to differences in geology and gas content, but the amount of reserves is comparable with that originally in the North Sea and exploitation should ensure that in the medium to long-term gas prices are kept lower than relying increasingly on imports.

The industry in the UK will take several years to become established, but over the next decade the size of this industry and the jobs created in the associated supply and delivery chain, will become considerable.

I also hope that it will be mandatory to link centralised gas use to CCS (as well as for coal power generation) and that industry too will become a major employer, comparable with the current oil and gas industry.

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Do you have a question for Geoff? Contact him via his blog.