Aluminium 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.
With 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.
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.
Another 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.
The 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.
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.
The report is a joint effort by the professional engineering institutions (PEIs), which represent the 450,000 professional engineers in the UK.
The 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.”
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.
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).
‘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.
Biofuel – 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.
‘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.
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.
Of 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
If 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).
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, 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.
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).
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?’.
Chemical 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.
There 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.