One foot in the toy box (Day 126)

Modular fluidic and instrumentation components

Modular fluidic and instrumentation components (MFICs, pronounced “em-fix”) developed by researchers at USC Viterbi

In my daily blog, I’ve talked frequently about the need for chemical engineers to operate in multi-disciplinary teams. Today’s blog – about an innovation in 3-D microfluidic systems – illustrates this point once again.

The idea for a new type of 3-D microfluidic system, developed by USC Viterbi School of Engineering, has great similarities with a toy box favourite – Lego, which as boys and girls know, is a fun and flexible system that can be used to build (and deconstruct) just about anything.

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Electronics from the inside (Day 125)

Circuit boardWhat does a two hundred year old printing process, a mobile phone and chemical engineering have in common?

At first glance not a lot, but there is an interesting story to tell to illustrate why chemical engineering matters so much in today’s world.

Firstly, let’s head back to the 1790s when a printing process called lithography was discovered. Encyclopaedia Britannica describe lithography as ‘planographic printing process that makes use of the immiscibility of grease and water’.

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What a waste (Day 124)

Green recycling binA few years ago the ‘waste’ business was estimated to be worth around GBP 272 billion (EUR 300 billion Euros or USD 410 billion).

The study also estimated that the world was producing at least four billion metric tons of waste a year – equivalent to world production of grain and steel combined.

These figures didn’t include construction, mining, agricultural and forestry wastes – suggesting that the real figure is much larger.

They are huge numbers and will grow as our population increases and we get better at recycling and managing our waste.

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Josiah Wedgwood – the first ceramics engineer (Day 123)

Many of you who listened to my presidential address will know that I was born in Stoke-on-Trent, an area of the UK famous for its pottery industry.

So you will not be surprised to learn that my father worked in the pottery industry at a company called Podmore and Sons. They made and processed the raw materials for making pottery e.g. clays, refractory frits and glazes. This connection to Podmores opened a door to some summer vacation work and was my first exposure to both industrial chemistry and to chemical engineering.

The most famous Stoke potter was Josiah Wedgwood, one of the great engineering entrepreneurs of the industrial revolution. Wedgwood was a Fellow of the Royal Society and was responsible for the industrialisation of the ceramics industry in England.

Narrow boat and kiln

Pottery kiln and canal in Stoke-on-Trent

He also played a large role setting up much of the rail and canal infrastructure which was essential for the widespread impact of engineering.

Wedgwood’s legacy collection is currently under threat, unless the Wedgwood museum in Stoke-on-Trent can raise £2.74m by the end of November it will be sold.

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Healing help for spinal injuries (Day 122)

Spinal injectionWorking as part of a multi-disciplinary team is a common feature of the modern chemical engineer.

One of the latest projects I’ve come across involves chemical engineers working alongside a neurosurgeon, materials scientist, biologist, and molecular physiologist.

One of the chemical engineers is a specialist in polymers called Andrew Spakowitz, an associate professor of chemical engineering [and much more], at Stanford University.

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Café culture (Day 121)

If I’ve said it once, I’ve repeated it many times – communication is key. At this time of year, there are hundreds of young, enthusiastic students leaving home, going to university to study chemical engineering. They’ve made a big step in a direction that has many opportunities.

In the first few weeks of university they will meet many new people, many of them studying different subjects. One of the first questions asked in these new meetings is “what are you studying?” – and in response to the answer “chemical engineering”, there will be a lot of people asking – “what’s that?”.

As I head to Australia for the Chemeca 2014 conference it reminded me again, that a big challenge is explaining what we do and how it makes a difference.

Cafe Culture

While having a drink, I thought about Café Scientifique – where anyone with an interest in science and technology can meet to listen, discuss and debate issues.

All it costs you is the price of a drink (tea, coffee or a glass of wine).

There are now local café’s across six continents, offering opportunities to talk about relevant issues.

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Just horsing around (Day 120)

Horse race

Horse fungus may help produce biofuel. Photo credit – Dziurek | Shutterstock.com

You may have noticed that the IChemE Global Award finals are just around the corner.

It’s an anxious wait for the 70 or so shortlisted finalists until 6 November 2014. However, I hope to share with you some of their work and achievements in the coming weeks on this blog.

Some of you may have noticed that this year’s venue is Cheltenham Racecourse, Gloucestershire, UK.

They’ve been racing at Cheltenham since 1815 and today attracts huge crowds from all over the world for events like the Cheltenham Festival. It also has some fantastic facilities, which is why we’ll be there on 6 November with 500 guests.

But today’s blog illustrates that the ubiquitous chemical engineer operates even in the equine world – a chemical engineer has found fungi in the intestinal tracts and faeces of horses which could help produce biofuels from non-food plants.

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A crystal anniversary (Day 119)

CrystallographyThis year – 2014 – is the International Year of Crystallography.

The year-long event commemorates the centennial of X-ray diffraction, which allowed the detailed study of crystalline material.

It is also the 400th anniversary of Kepler’s observation in 1611 of the symmetrical form of ice crystals, which began the wider study of the role of symmetry in matter.

You won’t be surprised to hear that I’m a great supporter of campaigns to raise the profile of science and engineering, and I would like to congratulate the lead sponsor of the campaign – the International Union of Crystallography (IUCr) – and their lead partner – UNESCO.

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Economics, memory loss and climate change (Day 118)

Memory lossIf you’ve encountered the concept of organisational memory loss, you’ll know how frustrating and costly it can be.

We often use the concept in relation to process safety when we fail to learn the lessons of the past to catastrophic effect.

A few days ago I wrote a blog called No time to wait in relation to climate change.

I thought I’d return again quickly to the same topic to show how the knowledge, lessons and messages from the past can easily slip away into inaction – especially as the United Nation’s Climate Change Summit is being held tomorrow in New York.

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The affordable kidney (Day 117)

Human kidneysIf ever you try to explain what a chemical engineer does, comparing it to human anatomy may not be your first choice. But there are some useful analogies, for instance the kidney.

The main role of the kidneys is to filter waste products from the blood and convert them to urine. If the kidneys lose this ability, waste products can build up, which is potentially dangerous and can be life threatening.

It’s a principle used widely by chemical engineers to manage all kinds of human and industrial waste.

I think the relationship between chemical engineers and human anatomy is set to become more common over the next few years, and will improve the quality of life for millions of people.

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No time to wait (Day 116)

Coal Power StationWhether we like it or not, energy from fossil fuels is going to be needed for around another two generations.

It is not a comforting thought to think that our descendants born in 30 or 40 years time may be left with the legacy of not acting now to mitigate the effects of climate change.

We need to press ahead with building capacity for renewable energy. There’s also no time to waste to implement carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology for the hundreds of fossil fuel power stations that will still need to be constructed in the meantime. Without CCS, it is unlikely we’ll get anywhere near the Kyoto targets.

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X-Ray Specification (Day 115)

Quality assuranceFew organisations in the process industries can succeed without some form of quality assurance.

If you work in the food and pharmaceuticals industries, where people directly consume our products, there are serious and very public consequences of failing to keep standards high.

The issue of how to test – rapidly – specific ‘ingredients’ used in a process has attracted the attention of the Technical University of Denmark (DTU).

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Ten skills chemical engineers should be talking about (Day 114)

SkillsWithin our profession, it is easy to find lists of the skills chemical engineers ‘should’ have: we are solution focused; we are good with numbers; we are practical.

However, none of these skills sound very exciting.

Interestingly, it is the ‘skills’ which we aren’t so good at and stereotypical engineering ‘memes’ which, arguably, we are more famous for.

I think we need to set the record straight and create an image of our skills which better reflects what we do in the twenty-first century.

Even our employers have a role – they are the ones with the power to present a picture of the modern engineer through their job specifications and approach to recruitment advertising.

So, here it is – a list of ten skills and values I know chemical engineers (and other scientists and engineers) have that we should be shouting about.

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The environmentally-friendly roof (Day 113)

Grass roofed buildingI’ve always been intrigued by buildings with ‘living’ or ‘green roofs’. It’s easy to forget they are not a modern invention. Places like Skara Brae Prehistoric Village in Scotland date back more than 5,000 years and have distinctive roofs using the benefits provided by nature.

Green roofs today are sold on the back of their environmental and economic benefits such as insulation and cooling properties, ability to significantly reduce rainwater run-off from roofs, and their value in promoting biodiversity and habitat in built-up areas. They look very impressive and distinctive too.

I think they are a useful reminder that buildings need to connect more with their environment for good reasons like reducing heating costs and greenhouse gas emissions. In the UK, around 13 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions come from the residential sector.

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Building public confidence in fracking (Day 112)

Fracking demonstration

Balcombe, UK, fracking demonstration (Image – Randi Sokoloff – Shutterstock.com)

A few weeks ago, I provided some information to the media in relation to a fracking ‘scare story’. As I always do in these situations, I look at the evidence and provide a factual and objective assessment. As chemical engineers that’s all we can ever do.

Realistically, concerns over fracking are unlikely to disappear. There will always be sceptics, but they have an absolute right to be heard. It’s up to us to listen carefully and respond to these concerns – consistently and in language that everyone understands.

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Training the microbe (Day 111)

BacteriaLots of IChemE Members will be aware of the many special interest groups established to help advance the chemical engineering profession and its many branches.

One of the most active groups is IChemE’s Biochemical Engineering Special Interest Groups. Sharing best practice, supporting young professionals and generally promoting the discipline are all part of their work, which includes events on topics like synthetic biology and multi-disciplinary meetings for young researchers.

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Avoiding the dreaded ‘fatbergs’ (Day 110)

A FOG blocking a sewage pipe - Image courtesy of Severn Trent Water

A FOG blocking a sewage pipe – Image courtesy of Severn Trent Water

Fatbergs recently received some news coverage in the UK, with a giant fatberg – 80 metres in length – being found in a west London sewer by Thames Water. So, to put that in perspective, 80 metres is the length of a commercial plane.

For those of you who don’t know exactly what a fatberg is, it is the term given to the solidified lump of fat that can cause blockages in sewer systems.

The problem stems from people pouring hot cooking oil down the sink, and when the oil hits the cold temperature of the sewers, it solidifies to fat. Wet wipes, food, cotton buds and litter can easily cling to this fat and form congealed masses or fatbergs.

Another phrase used in the water industry, for example at Severn Trent Water, to describe these unpleasant wastewater blockers are ‘FOGs’ – fats, oil and grease.

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Get on your hydrogen bike (Day 109)

Hy-cycle

UNSW’s Hy-cycle powered by a hydrogen fuel cell.

Some stories in the world of chemical engineering have stand-out lines that really grab my attention.

This week I came across an interesting story from Australia about a team of chemical engineers that have built a bicycle powered by a hydrogen fuel cell.

In itself this is a great achievement, but it was a quote from associate professor Kondo-Francois Aguey-Zinsou, who works in the chemical engineering department at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), that really caught my attention.

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When 99.9 per cent just isn’t good enough (Day 108)

99.9%Have you ever wondered why we make mistakes? Well, according to a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, called Joseph T Hallinan, he thinks ‘humans are pre-programmed to make blunders’. He’s even written a book about it called ‘Why We Make Mistakes’.

Hallinan is a former Wall Street Journal reporter who began to shape his theory while researching a story on anaesthetists.

Hallinan discovered they had a mixed safety record, but noted their safety record was vastly improved by a simple change to their equipment that cancelled out human error. The change was the introduction of a valve that could only turn one way to deliver anaesthetic to a patient.

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Water versus energy – which is more precious? (Day 107)

Water damSome of you will be aware of the ‘nexus’ approach to the grand chemical engineering challenges. Although, we often look at energy, food, water and health in isolation, in fact many of them should be considered alongside each other.

One of these important relationships is energy and water.

Of course if you’ve got energy and water, the debate is often about cost and service. If you’ve got neither, then it’s a completely different debate where capital, skills and infrastructure become the priority topics.

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What’s the best vote for Scotland’s Oil and Gas industry? (Day 106)

Scottish Independence Ballet BoxThere’s one thing that the Queen and IChemE have in common – they (we) are both neutral on Scottish Independence.

However, there are lots of individuals in the chemical and process industries that have chosen to support one or other of the two campaigns – Better Together or Yes Scotland.

One of the latest opinion polls by YouGov from 6 September shows just how tight the vote will be on 18 September: The ‘Yes to Independence’ group has a slight edge at 51 per cent, with 49 per cent stating ‘No’. According to YouGov, it’s a ‘statistical dead heat’ with just days to go.

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Solar power – from innovative to the bizarre (Day 105)

I have explored in other blog posts solar technology innovations that will transform the way we live and use energy. But I was recently reminded of some of the truly innovative and practical ways solar power can be applied after seeing a University of Queensland ‘Sustainability Week’ event that involved enjoying sustainable food cooked on a solar powered barbeque.

For a bit of fun, I thought it was worth checking-out some of the more unconventional solar powered products that have been developed over the years – some very practical and others bordering on ridiculous.

A solar powered bikini (iKini)

The wackiest use of solar energy I have ever seen has to be the solar power bikini (iKini). This limited-edition bikini was created by a US designer and made from hand stitched photovoltaic film strips that can power small electronic gadgets such as iPods and cameras. Just don’t forget to unplug your devices before taking a dip!

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Jet-fuelled by landfill waste (Day 104)

Jet AirplaneIf you get time to study some of the statistics quoted by the aviation industry they are remarkable. Over 65 billion passengers carried over the last century; 58 million people employed; $6.4 trillion of cargo carried each year and around 60 million flying hours.

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What the public really think about chemical engineers… (Day 103)

Crowd of peopleI recently came across the Ipsos MORI 2014 Public Attitudes to Science study which focuses on public perceptions in the UK to science and engineering.

The survey did not test scientific knowledge but instead examined the social connections between people and science. This approach is useful as it offers an insight into how a person will respond to a specific issue, for example fracking.

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The nano-police (Day 102)

Geoffrey Bothun

Geoffrey Bothun – chemical engineer looking at the implications of nanotechnology

In the UK, we’ve been tracking public attitudes to science since 1998.

Some of the central questions in the Public Attitudes to Science survey, by ipsos MORI, is to measure opinions towards ‘pace of change’, how much science is ‘valued’ and ‘trust’.

I’ll be exploring the results of the 2014 survey in more detail in tomorrow’s blog, but today I wanted to look at the issue of trust in relation to nanotechnology.

Some fields of science are more difficult to ‘police’ than others. This is certainly the case for nanotechnology – the creation of materials or processes at the nano-scale – which has attracted concerns about environmental risks that may not become apparent until decades later.

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A new approach to bone injuries (Day 101)

X ray of human bodyTypically, we all have 206 bones in our body by the time we are adults. It’s not surprising that we break them every now and again.

Collarbones, arms, wrists, hips and ankles are parts of the body most at risk of breakage.

I always think the body is remarkable in how it can heal itself. In children, bones can repair in as little as three weeks.

But sometimes, nature needs a little help, especially if the defect is so severe that a normal approach won’t work.

Now some clever chemical engineers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have devised a new implantable tissue scaffold coated with bone growth factors that are released slowly over a few weeks.

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Ten future careers of chemical engineers (Day 100)

Young Executive looking to the futureHello and welcome to Day 100 of my presidency.

Normally, ‘presidents’ cast their eye over their achievements for this mini milestone. But to break the tradition, I am going to look forward to speculate how careers in chemical engineering might evolve.

I find that newspapers often produce articles hypothesising about what possible careers we will be performing in the future. The majority of the time these future careers all involve an aspect of chemical engineering.

I know from working as a chemical engineer that we can be hard to identify as we are rarely called ‘chemical engineers’. We can be process engineers, safety engineers, bioproduct engineers, design engineers, environmental engineers… and some of us aren’t even called engineers!

Reading through the online literature I came across a variety of future professions and roles, some more fanciful than others, that I think will be well suited to the skills of tomorrow’s chemical engineers and some that are already being done by today’s chemical engineers.

Here are ten (possible!) future careers of chemical engineers:

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Window power (Day 99)

WindowIn theory, there’s enough light from the sun to provide all of the world’s energy needs. Clean, limitless and renewable it is a very attractive proposition.

Of course, it is not as simple as that. It doesn’t work at night and seasonality, atmospheric conditions and variable climate conditions (mostly clouds) mean it is less viable in some parts of the world.

There are other practical challenges too. Solar farms need to cover large surface areas to be commercially viable. This demand for space is also reflected for home-based solar power generation. Large solar panels are dotted on house roofs and buildings – not pretty and certainly not integrated into house design the way architects would prefer.

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Keeping an optical eye on mercury (Day 98)

Liquid MercuryThe dangers of mercury in food have been known for a long time, but it’s only recently that some regulatory bodies like the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have tightened their guidance.

In December 2012, EFSA updated its scientific advice on mercury in food.

EFSA established Tolerable Weekly Intakes (TWIs) for the main forms of mercury found in food: methylmercury and inorganic mercury.

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Gender’s not the only issue (Day 97)

Career keyhole

35 per cent of IChemE’s students across the world are women.

Like most of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, the chemical engineering profession can suffer from a lack of diversity.

The most common diversity angle is the gender balance issue. While there is plenty of room for improvement, we can be proud of the fact that around 35 per cent of IChemE’s global student members are women.

A closer look at IChemE’s membership data shows how the chemical engineering profession is thriving, from a gender perspective, in some countries.

Malaysia tops the list with women accounting for 49 per cent of chemical engineering student members. New Zealand (40 per cent), Australia (35 per cent) and Singapore (31 per cent) also post strong performances for gender balance.

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