Blocking bacterial biofilms without antibiotics (Day 157)

Our war against infection and disease is ongoing. New bacterial strains are consistently emerging and our current antibiotics are becoming less and less effective at fighting them.

Purple GermsGovernments and researchers worldwide are searching for new methods to help deal with the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Chemical engineers from the University of Washington have proposed a strategy to block bacterial biofilms forming and thus keep the bacteria in their more readily treatable single-cell form.

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The red mud challenge (Day 156)

Drinks cans Image by Radu Bercan / Shutterstock.comAluminium is everywhere. In fact, it’s the third most abundant element on planet earth after oxygen and silicon.

Its low density and strength, coupled with its outstanding resistance to corrosion, make it one of the most useful metals we have.

Aluminium and its alloys are essential to the aerospace and construction industries where it finds widespread use as a structural material.

Our homes wouldn’t be the same without Aluminium either. Modern doors and window frames are commonly constructed from PVC coated aluminium. Many kitchen utensils are made from aluminium as are the cans that contain beer and soft drinks.

And where would we be without that handy roll of ‘tin’ foil, which is of course made from – you’ve guessed it; aluminium.

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A day in the life of a chemical engineering graduate (Day 155)

Graduation hatsWith the autumn semester of the academic year well under way in the UK, final year chemical engineering students will be starting to think about their next step – applying for a graduate job.

Stepping into the world of work from university can be scary because it’s unknown, unfamiliar and it comes with responsibility. But it’s the start of an exciting chapter, full of opportunities and meeting new people.

So it would be great for students to know a little more about what it’s like to start a chemical engineering graduate job and what the journey was like to get there.

As IChemE president, I get to interact and talk to chemical engineers, all at different stages of their careers. With applications to study chemical engineering increasing year by year, I thought it would be great to blog about what it’s like to be a graduate just starting out.

The individual in question is a graduate safety engineer working for an engineering consultancy and has been in post for about two months – so I will pass the reigns over to them and let them explain, via this mystery guest blog, what it’s like to be a chemical engineering graduate.

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Electrically fantastic plastic (Day 154)

Plastic has many properties such as its durability and versatility. In recent years polymers have also become increasingly recognised for being ‘smart’.

Shape-memory polymers, pH-sensitive polymers and temperature-responsive polymers have been developed. And now there is an emerging class of electrically conductive plastics called “radical polymers.”

5v - BWB - TOC Graphic

An emerging class of electrically conductive plastics are called “radical polymers.” The graphic at left depicts the structure of a polymer. At right, transparent polymer overlays the Purdue logo. Image by Purdue University

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‘Hand-made’ pills inspired by a starfish (Day 153)

I’ve blogged a few times over the past five months about 3D printing. It’s one of those technological developments which has attracted the attention of chemical engineers, despite some apparent anomalies.

Our profession spends much of its time producing items on a massive scale. We deal in huge volumes which provide food, energy, water and healthcare to hundreds of millions of people.

By contrast, 3D-printing operates in small numbers – even ones and twos. In fact, I think 3D-printing is synonymous with the phrase ‘hand-made’ – unique, custom-designed, high quality and carefully crafted. Who knows, 3D printing may herald the end of some traditional skills.

StarfishAnother fascinating feature of 3D-printing is its ability to produce or mimic things we find difficult. An example is the shell of a starfish.

Echinoderm sea creatures such as brittle stars have ordered rounded structures on their bodies that work as lenses to gather light into their rudimentary eyes. Under the microscope, the shell looks like little hot air balloons that are rising from the surface.

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Innovation for water for life (Day 152)

Arid groundThe World Health Organisation’s (WHO) prediction that over two thirds of the world’s population will face living with severe water shortages by 2050 is daunting.

The combination of population growth, climate change and dwindling resources make this a complex problem.

As someone who lives in the UK, this is something that has not really affected us. There have been summers when the water companies impose bans on using hose pipes to water gardens and wash cars. It makes the news headlines and interrupts daily lives, but a dirty car is nothing compared to the problems experienced elsewhere.

In other areas of the world, water scarcity is a daily reality – it’s not just areas of famine hit Africa, but the Middle East and Singapore too. We will all have to address this challenge, in our homes and in the industries that we work in.

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Plastic waste and oceans of opportunity (Day 151)

Beach garbage

I’ve been travelling extensively over recent weeks in Australia, Malaysia and Singapore.

Like many people, I use online news media to keep in touch with what is going on at home and around the world.

Scanning the UK news headlines earlier this week there was lots of stories of interest to chemical engineers; fires at power stations, new bills to allow the use of untested drugs, the introduction of charges for plastic carrier bags; and the growing Ebola problem.

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A profession under pressure? (Day 150)

Welcome to Day 150 of my IChemE presidency.

A thought-provoking report was published yesterday by the Royal Academy of Engineering called The Universe of Engineering – a call to action.

The report is a joint effort by the professional engineering institutions (PEIs), which represent the 450,000 professional engineers in the UK.

Time to adaptThe views of chemical engineers were represented on the steering group by my presidential predecessor, Judith Hackitt CBE.

On word, in particular, in the report caught my attention – ‘adapt’.

Dame Sue Ion DBE, chair of the working group that produced the report, said: “As engineers underpin an increasing number of different parts of the economy and society, the engineering community and professional engineering institutions must adapt to represent and support those in both traditional and non-traditional engineering roles.

“The engineering profession now has a critical opportunity to identify and put into place a framework for the new model of engineering, with its increasing inter-disciplinarity and pervasive reach.”

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Nano-drops provide relief for dry eyes (Day 149)

EyedropsMany of us take good vision for granted, although we wear glasses or contact lenses we often don’t think beyond this.

For the millions of sufferers of dry eye syndrome, this is not the case. The treatment for this painful condition is to use drug-laced eye drops three times a day.

Researchers from the Department of Chemical Engineering and the Centre for Contact Lens Research at the University of Waterloo, Canada, have developed a method for using drug-infused nanoparticles to help deliver long-lasting relief for eyes in less drops.

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Five every day products and the chemical engineering that goes into them (Day 148)

toothpasteChemical engineering is often described as process engineering. But many chemical engineers work as product engineers within the fast moving consumer goods market.

The products that we buy and use every day, and often take for granted, have been chemically engineered so that they fulfil their required function.

And as you know, the best way to explain something is by way of example. That’s why I’ve compiled a list of products explaining the science and engineering that goes into them.

The products are also a great way to introduce young people to a potential career in chemical engineering .

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Funding for life (Day 147)

It shouldn’t surprise anyone when I say that some of the most successful nations and organisations in the world are the ones that invest heavily in research. It is a way to fuel growth, improve competitiveness, efficiency, quality of life and much more.

R&D Spend

Research and development expenditure (% of GDP) 2009-2013. Source: The World Bank. Click to visit website and enlarge.

Some of the latest data from The World Bank shows who are the biggest researchers, as a percentage of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

There are some surprises, but in general the biggest spenders are in Europe and North America. The top 20 includes Israel (1st), Finland (2nd), Sweden (3rd), Denmark (4th), Germany (5th), Austria (6th), Slovenia (7th), United States (8th), France (9th), Belgium (10th), Estonia (11th), Netherlands (12th), Singapore (13th), China (14th), Czech Republic (15th), Canada (16th), Ireland (17th), United Kingdom (18th), Norway (19th) and Portugal (20th).

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Minted into IChemE history (Day 146)

IChemE Logo - advancing chemical engineering worldwide

‘Advancing chemical engineering worldwide’ is a phrase you may be aware of. It’s the reason why IChemE exists and it has pride of place next to our logo.

The way we advance chemical engineering is largely due to the energy, expertise and enthusiasm of our 40,000 plus members. They are the ‘brains’ behind our success, and the same could be said of any professional body.

And how IChemE recognises the achievements of individuals who have really pushed the ‘envelope’ and boundaries of the profession is very important to us.

It’s the reason why we manage and grant over 25 medals and prizes in any given year (not including the many other awards ceremonies and accolades we co-ordinate).

IChemE’s medals and prizes offer a celebratory win-win. They are named after some incredible chemical engineers and it means we don’t forget their contribution. They also celebrate the achievements of the present – to advance chemical engineering worldwide.

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Italy’s commitment to a biofuelled future (Day 145)

Refinery plant for ethanol biofuelBiofuel – it’s a source of energy that can produce very different views in conversation. The debates in IChemE circles can get very lively, especially about the impact of biofuels; both in their production and their use.

There are concerns, but biofuels are likely to continue to play a part in our transport fuel strategy. In particular, second generation (also known as advanced) biofuels.

Here in the UK, the Department for Transport had a consultation on advanced fuels this year. IChemE worked with other professional engineering institutions (PEIs) through Engineering the Future to contribute.

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Energy saving no longer an option for business (Day 144)

Sea of bureaucracy‘Red tape’ is always a hot topic in business and political circles. Governments talk about it and set targets in their manifesto pledges to win votes. Big business spends a lot of time and money lobbying to avoid it. Regulators spend their time trying to impose it (and remove it).

The issue of red tape can lead to some strange and unusual headlines. Recently, apparent ‘red tape’ came under the spotlight in the news in relation to a European Union directive on vacuum cleaners. Sadly, the headlines missed the point.

Some regulations and legislation, however painful to business, are necessary and show the right leadership.

The EU’s Energy Efficiency Directive (EED) is one that attempts to show the way forward.

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What’s the water cost of your food? (Day 143)

Yesterday was World Food Day and I’ve taken the opportunity to explore one of the lesser known challenges involved in providing enough food to an expanding population.

The numbers illustratCEM just logoe the challenge – we ‘eat’ 3,496 litres of water everyday and it is one of the issues being explored in IChemE’s first green paper, published yesterday, as a part of our Chemical Engineering Matters technical policy.

Generally, a ‘green paper’ is a policy document designed to stimulate discussion with a wider audience and get the conversation started about what we should do next.

It’s a phrase and approach IChemE is borrowing to help lead the debate on key issues around energy, water, food and health.

Our first green paper – called Water Management in the Food and Drink Industry’ – discusses the importance of water management in the food and drink industry, and the role that chemical engineers play in this.

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Relief for brain injuries (Day 142)

Professional sportsmen and women are well aware of the dangers they face when they put their bodies on the line for the sports they love and excel at.

Surface of brainOf course, most are well rewarded, but the risks can be high. One type of injury that causes alarm is head injuries.

Contact sports like boxing and rugby often result in concussions leading to mandatory and forced absences for several weeks – and sometimes months for repeated concussions – before they can return to the sport.

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One small step for CCS; one giant leap for the Earth (Day 141)

Big stepCarbon capture and storage (CCS) is something close to my heart. I, and many colleagues at Imperial College Centre for Carbon Capture and Storage (IC4S) have been working on this for a long time.

With the amount of discussion about it, people may be forgiven for thinking it’s already happening. There is progress and technology and projects are coming online. However, it’s still in its infancy and we’ve only just reached a vital milestone.

It’s been a long time coming, but at the start of October, the world’s first commercial-scale carbon capture and storage plant has come online and started operating in Canada.

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Preventing blindness with a sleep mask (Day 140)

The number of people who are diagnosed with diabetes around the world is approaching 400 million.

In the UK, there are 3.2 million people diagnosed with the condition and an estimated 630,000 people have it, but don’t know it. The cost of diabetes to the NHS is estimated to be about £10 billion a year overall, with £7.7 billion related to health complications and £2.1 billion spent on treatments.

Sleep Mask

PolyPhotonics’ Noctura 400 mask is shortlisted for an IChemE Global Award in 2014.

This is a huge amount of money, and with the World Health Organisation (WHO) predicting a 55 per cent increase by 2035 in people living with diabetes worldwide, the cost is only going to increase and put a strain on the already limited resources.

PolyPhotonix, a bio-photonic and OLED (organic light-emitting diode) research company headed up by  Richard Kirk, has developed an innovative product that can save the NHS up to £1 billion a year by preventing and treating diabetes retinopathy and age related macular degeneration.

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Honesty and integrity (Day 139)

Whistleblowing is a term that causes concern for business, governments and individuals. It can have severe legal and corporate implications. It undoubtedly affects the future careers of the individuals involved. It also requires courage.

WikiLeaks

Credit: Gil C | Shutterstock.com

In some ways it doesn’t help that there is a media obsession with high profile cases like WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, as well as the case of Edward Snowden, who exposed global surveillance programmes.

Neither case encourages the important role whistleblowing can play. In some sectors, like health, greater attempts are being made to encourage whistleblowing.

In our profession, whistleblowing is especially relevant to lapses in process safety and standards.

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Dispelling some nuclear myths (Day 138)

Solid radioactive waste

Solid radioactive waste

Whenever I talk to chemical engineers, whether members of IChemE or otherwise, within the nuclear industry, there can be no doubt that one of the main issues affecting their work is public perception and understanding.

People do tend to recoil when something is described as radioactive or nuclear, and in part, this is due to images from World War II, and subsequent portrayal in the media.

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Chemical engineering’s film stars (Day 137)

London skyline

London’s evolving skyline

I was casting an eye over the evolving sky-scrape of London recently and marveled at some of the new architecture and buildings which have appeared like the Shard, the Gherkin and the Cheesegrater.

The UK is not renowned for its tall buildings, but the success of the UK’s capital and growing population (which is forecast to make it the most populous country in the European Union over the next few decades), has led to a bit of vertical thinking.

Of course, these buildings are the result of some fantastic engineering and there for everyone to enjoy – on a functional and aesthetic level.

One of the [minor] frustrations of being a chemical engineer is that not everything we do is so self-evident. In fact, some of us operate at levels no one can see, but our efforts influence some of our biggest man-made objects – and keep us safe.

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‘Injecting’ from the inside (Day 136)

Most of our prescription medicines are administered orally or by injection. As a patient, the general preference is to receive medicine orally in pill or ‘syrup’ format. Indeed a phobia or fear of needles is common and with billions of injections given each year that’s a lot of nervous patients.

Injections pose other challenges too for patients and medical professionals. There is always a risk of infection caused by piercing the skin, especially from contaminated needles, and medical professionals need to be wary of ‘stick’ injuries.

But sometimes injections are unavoidable. Drugs made from large proteins can be broken down in the stomach before they can take effect. But what if there was a way to use the powerful acids in our stomachs to deliver an injection in the form of a pill – from the inside?

It seems implausible, but that’s what researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Massachusetts General Hospital have managed to do.

Microneedle pill

A schematic drawing of a microneedle pill with hollow needles. When the pill reaches the desired location in the digestive tract, the pH-sensitive coating surrounding the capsule dissolves, allowing the drug to be released through the microneedles. Image: Christine Daniloff/MIT, based on images by Carol Schoellhammer and Giovanni Traverso

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Meeting our Canadian friends and the grand challenges (Day 135)

Canadian flagIt is now over five years since one of my presidential predecessors, Ian Shott, signed an agreement with the Canadian Society for Chemical Engineering (CSChE) to explore a closer relationship between the two organisations.

At the time, Ian said: “Global challenges require global solutions and chemical engineers must work together across national boundaries in order to tackle pressing issues such as energy security, sustainable food production and the transition to a low carbon economy.

“This agreement will enable us to work together on collaborative projects that will highlight the role of the chemical engineer in delivering sustainable solutions.”

These issues, and our commitment to our Canadian friends, are still relevant today and IChemE, in the form of our director of policy – Andy Furlong – will be attending the 64th Canadian Chemical Engineering Conference in Niagara Falls on between 19-22 October 2014.

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A path to the stars (Day 134)

On Day 100 of my presidency, I mused about possible future careers of chemical engineers. It won’t come as a surprise to learn that engineering in space – whether as a space fuel processor or galactic engineer – featured in my top ten list.

But you’ll be pleased to know that chemical engineers have already been travelling into space for decades.

When you ask a small child what they want to be when they grow up, more often than not, you will hear them say: “I want to be an astronaut and go into space”. And yet, little is known about how you become an astronaut and career paths that can lead to space travel.

One such path that can lead to the stars is chemical engineering.

As they say, the proof is in the pudding, so I’ve compiled a list of individuals who started their career in chemical engineering, and then went on to become astronauts:

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The Zebrafish solution (Day 133)

ZebrafishIf you’ve ever had a tropical aquarium there’s a good chance you’ll have owned and been delighted by the vibrant colours of a darting Zebrafish.

What you may not know is that the Zebrafish has become a firm favourite of the research community. One reason for this is that Zebrafish embryos are completely transparent making them ideally suited for studying developmental processes as they occur.

As a general introduction to why Zebrafish are so attractive to the science community, take a look at this YouTube video produced by University College London (UCL).

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Perseverance brings breakthrough in catalytic converters (Day 132)

A team of chemical engineering researchers have discovered a breakthrough in catalytic converter research through perseverance. This research will help manufactures of cars reduce the need for the use of expensive platinum in catalytic converters.

Eric Peterson, Andrew DeLaRiva and Abhaya Datye in the lab Photo credit | University of New Mexico

Eric Peterson, Andrew DeLaRiva and Abhaya Datye in the lab
Photo credit | University of New Mexico

Eric Peterson, a graduate student in Nanoscience and Microsystems Engineering at the University of New Mexico, began this discovery when he refused to accept that the measurements he recorded using x-ray absorption spectroscopy (XAS) were incorrect.

In order to find a solution, Eric collaborated with a wide group of researchers from the University of New Mexico, US, Fuzhou University, China, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, US, New Mexico State University, US, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, US and Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology, Korea, to help explain and resolve what was happening.

Professor of chemical and biological engineering, Abhaya Datye, worked with Eric on this project to improve our ability to measure the sizes of nanoparticles, focusing on those smaller than one nanometre (one billionth of a metre).

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The original natural gas – poo power (Day 131)

Pig

Pig waste is powering 700 homes and helping to reduce landfill waste by 18,000 tonnes each year in Leicestershire, UK.

It was around this time last year that one of the big winners at the IChemE Global Awards 2013 – PROjEN – were collecting the Bioprocessing Award for their technology used to convert pig waste into energy.

The pig waste, combined with other food waste, was being used to produce biogas capable of generating the equivalent of around 1.2MW of electricity.

The electricity was exported into the local energy grid in Leicestershire, UK, to power an estimated 700 homes and reduce landfill waste by 18,000 tonnes each year.

In the UK, people outnumber pigs by more than ten to one, so one has to ask the question – ‘Can human poo be used in a similar way to provide a sustainable source of energy?’.

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‘School report’ on saving the planet (Day 130)

Barack Obama and Ban Ki-moon - Frederic Legrand - Shutterstock.com

Barack Obama and Ban Ki-moon. Photo credit: Frederic Legrand – Shutterstock.com

Earlier this year, I went on record as saying that: ‘We are sleep-walking into a catastrophic climate change future’.

It was a statement I made in response to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report: Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability.

My perception was that ‘short-term energy policies and ‘political fiddling’ were failing to provide the solutions needed – and fast enough’.

With these thoughts in mind, I was very interested in the outcomes of the United Nation’s Climate Change Summit 2014 held last week. Further down, I’ve ‘graded’ the summit in the form of a school report.

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Ten job titles of chemical engineers… and what they actually mean (Day 129)

Great JobChemical engineers can be hard to identify, not just because most people aren’t clear about what chemical engineering actually is, but because chemical engineers rarely can be identified by the job title – chemical engineer!

To help dispel this confusion I have compiled a list of ten job titles that chemical engineers typically fill:

 

1. Process engineer

When I met up with chemical engineering colleagues they often describe themselves as process engineers. Process engineering occurs across the wide range of chemical engineering sectors, but a process engineer will typically work to design engineering packages, develop new ideas and processes, and monitor and maintain plant systems.

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The threat of energy paralysis (Day 128)

LightbulbThere has been a great deal of reflection over the past few weeks about the Scottish Independence Referendum.

With 97 per cent of the electorate in Scotland registering to vote, and an eventual turnout of 85 per cent, it was a triumph for democracy and public engagement.

At the same time, it was a major wake-up call to many politicians who have rarely experienced the huge level of interest in their ‘day jobs’. In fact, arguably, many politicians were shown how to do their jobs better.

Some ‘leaders’ even tried to side-track the politicians, by building websites using independent assessments from leading experts around the world. Continue reading

Financing the quest for endless energy (Day 127)

Hello and welcome to today’s Chemeng365 blog. I’m currently enjoying meeting many chemical engineers in some of IChemE’s membership hot-spots in the Asia Pacific and Australasia regions.

Having just enjoyed a successful Chemeca 14 conference in Perth, Australia, I thought I’d keep the Australia theme going with an interesting hydrogen energy story from New South Wales.

Merlin - benefits of hydrogen

Graphic courtesy of MERLin

You may have spotted a blog recently about the Hy-cycle – a bicycle powered by a hydrogen fuel cell.

It’s just one of the interesting projects coming out of Australia at the moment attempting to develop hydrogen as a source of clean energy.

Some of the work is being driven by a research group called MERLin, which is based at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia.

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