The inequality of health (Day 187)

Soweto TownshipIn ChemEng365 we regularly feature ‘top tens’ such as ‘Ten future careers of chemical engineers’.

Today’s blog also starts with a list, but is significantly more sobering than previous stories.

Here’s five things about the inequality of health, which should make us all stop and think:

  • Children from the poorest 20 per cent of households are nearly twice as likely to die before their fifth birthday as children in the richest 20 per cent.
  • Around 95 per cent of TB deaths are in the developing world.
  • About 80 per cent of noncommunicable diseases are in low- and middle-income countries.
  • In low-income countries, the average life expectancy is 57, while in high-income countries, it is 80.
  • Developing countries account for 99 per cent of annual maternal deaths in the world.

The knowledge that money, or the lack of it, is a major root cause of poor health and high mortality is well-known. But what do we do about it?

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Closing the ‘pores’ on cancers (Day 186)

Polio vaccination Asianet-Pakistan - Shutterstock.com

Polio vaccination in Pakistan – one of the remaining endemic countries for Wild Poliovirus Type 1. Image credit – Asianet Pakistan – Shutterstock.com

There’s been some good news recently with the announcement of the possible eradication of Wild Poliovirus Type 3 (WPV3) by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

WPV3 has not been detected for more than two years. The last reported case of Wild Poliovirus Type 2 (WPV2) was in India in 1999.

The completion of polio eradication was declared a programmatic emergency for public health in 2012, and the international spread of Wild Poliovirus Type 1 (WPV1) was declared a public health emergency of international concern in May 2014.

The efforts needed to interrupt all indigenous WPV1 transmission are now being focused on the remaining endemic countries: Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Mankind’s ability to transform public health in this way is impressive. Let’s hope we can achieve the same results with Ebola.

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One less trip to Accident and Emergency (Day 185)

Boy in hospitalChildren aged one to five are notorious for putting things in their mouth. It’s part of their learning process and parents spend a lot of time and effort trying to safety-proof their homes.

There’s some good advice online about how to care for a child that is choking, but there are are other hidden dangers, especially from small button batteries.

It is fairly common for flat, round batteries that power toys, hearing aids, calculators, and many other devices to be swallowed.

Swallowing these batteries has severe consequences, including burns that permanently damage the oesophagus, tears in the digestive tract, and in some cases, even death.

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A great Scottish story (Day 184)

Scotland is home to some of the finest and most famous foods and drinks in the world. Few are bigger – and more important to the national economy – than Scottish Salmon and Whisky.

And now – with a sprinkle of chemical engineering expertise thrown in – these two iconic industries are forging closer ties with the help of a new company established by Heriot-Watt University, called Horizon Proteins.

Horizon Proteins will exploit a by-product of whisky to feed and grow another – salmon.

Whisky making

The inside of a mash tun used to make whisky.

Horizon Proteins has developed a method of using pot ale, or the spent liquid residue left over from the whisky making process, to produce sustainable protein for fish food for salmon farming.

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Time to dig up our landfills? (Day 183)

Green recycling binI’m now officially half way through my presidency and I’d like to thank everyone for their support and encouragement over the past six months.

But let’s get back to business with today’s blog.

In recent years, significant efforts have been made to turn the world’s citizens into recyclers of waste.

In parts of the UK such as England, the household waste recycling rate reached 43.2% in 2012/13. Over the previous decade, the amount of waste going to landfill has fallen by over 60 per cent.

This data is encouraging, but 34 per cent of local authority managed waste in England still went to landfill in 2012/13 – over a hundred kilogrammes for each man, woman and child.

I suspect for large parts of the world this is a similar picture, but the trends are positive and the number of landfill sites is decreasing and new developments are being scaled back as we find ways to re-use our waste.

But one aspect of recycling that get’s less attention, is what to do with the waste already buried in tens of thousands of landfill sites across the world.

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Going the extra litre (Day 182)

In today’s blog we are heading towards Puerto Palomas, Chihuahua, Mexico, which is a small town with a population of around 5,000 people located just south of the US border near Columbus, New Mexico.

It’s a part of the world that has an average annual rainfall in the region of 361 mm (14.21 inches). In comparison, parts of the UK has more than ten times this level (4,577 mm or 180.2 inches).

Aquifer wellWater supplies for North and South of the border are drawn from the same aquifers, some of which are contaminated with arsenic and fluoride.

On the US side, the water is treated using a reverse osmosis system to provide all residents with clean water.

On the Mexican side, the water supply is only disinfected with chlorine. The levels of arsenic and fluoride contaminating the water supply is toxic to the people who drink it over a long period of time.

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Planet Poker (Day 181)

If you had to sit down in front of the three biggest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world – China (29 per cent), USA (15 per cent), and the European Union (10 per cent) – and persuade them to scale back their use of fossil fuels what would you say?

Would you take the emotive approach and appeal to their sense of humanity by highlighting the risks they are storing up for our children and grandchildren in the future?

Or would you lead with the science articulated so determinedly by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published in its Synthesis Report at the start of this month?

PokerEither way, it does seem that nations – and even within nations – the world’s biggest game of poker is underway.

Our leaders are literally gambling with our planet, and the odds are getting worse if you agree with the IPCC.

This game of cards moved on recently when China and the US unveiled new pledges on greenhouse gas emissions.

US President Barack Obama said the move was “historic”, as he set a new goal of reducing US levels between 26 per cent-28 per cent by 2025, compared with 2005 levels.

China did not set a specific target, but said emissions would peak by 2030.

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Super and fruity (Day 180)

CranberriesI hope you have had the opportunity to read my blog recently called the threat of living 20 years less.

The blog raised the spectre of dramatically reduced life spans, due to growing resistance to antibiotics.

The search is now on for a solution in the shape of a ‘diagnostic test that will significantly reduce the incorrect use of antibiotics across the world’.

But there are other lines of work, some of which have been under way for a while, seeking different solutions.

One of these is to increase our understanding of ‘natural’ interventions – like the food we we eat – to reduce the risk of infections in the first place.

If you have been unfortunate enough to suffer from a Urinary Tract Infection (UTI), you’ll know they can be painful and uncomfortable. They usually pass within a few days or can be treated with a course of antibiotics (if not resistant).

When you consider that half of all women in the UK will have a UTI at least once in their life, and, to illustrate the numbers in a different way, 13,000 UK men are likely to need treatment every year, it is easy to see how prevention is better than cure.

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A winning project – it’s the ‘white’ stuff (Day 179)

By now, I hope you are all aware that this blog has a single-minded purpose – to shine a light on chemical engineering and the profession by showcasing and sharing good news stories every day.

Recently, we celebrated all the great work chemical engineers are doing around the world at the IChemE Global Awards on 6 November 2014.

I blogged about the triumphant night, the winners and highly commended entries. But I didn’t get chance to share their innovations, projects and processes in much detail – apart from the overall winner.

I did, however, blog about one of the short-listed entries, preventing blindness with a sleep mask, before the event and I’m happy to report that they won the Innovative Product of the Year Award on the night – so congratulations to Polyphotonix!

Huntsman Pigments

Huntsman Pigments – winners of the Chemical Engineering Project of the Year Award

Another winner on the night was by Huntsman Pigments, based at their Greatham site in Hartlepool, UK, for their innovative project which improves titanium dioxide efficiency in the manufacture of titanium dioxide pigments.

They bagged the Chemical Engineering Project of the Year Award sponsored by Sellafield Ltd.

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Haute Couture Energy (Day 178)

If you enjoy change, it’s always exciting when there’s the chance to re-write the rules. How we work, shop, meet people, communicate, play and even be entertained has all changed dramatically in recent years as a result of the internet and technology.

Where we can do these things has changed as well – just about anywhere.

However, one of the great limiters is energy and the opportunity to re-charge some of the fantastic devices we use.

There are some exciting developments such as the Upp is a personal energy device based on hydrogen fuel cell technology that gives instant energy anytime, anywhere to portable electronic devices such as smartphones and MP3 players via USB.

How good is it? Well, Apple has become the first retailer in the UK to sell it. Not a bad recommendation!

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Can chemical engineers change the world? (Day 177)

Change the WorldIn IChemE’s marketing literature you’ll often find phrases like: ‘Join approaching 40,000 peers worldwide to share best practice, find out about new discoveries and change the world.’

I know from talking to colleagues at IChemE the phrase ‘change the world’ has been pounced upon and some believe it is hard to justify.

However, chemical engineers, chemical engineering principles and the fields we work in can and do change the world and you’ll find at least 177 examples in my blog.

If you’re still not convinced let’s take a look at this year’s World Changing Ideas 2014 published by Scientific American. Continue reading

A floating economy (Day 176)

Two projects have caught my eye recently that may give some hints about where we might build some of our power stations and processing facilities in the future.

Quite rightly, land-based power stations and industrial units are subject to careful scrutiny before planning permission is given. The fact they are so visible and close to communities means the opinions of thousands of people may need to be considered.

Even offshore facilities like fixed wind farms, visible from coastlines, bear the scars of public consultation.

But what if we generated our power or processed raw materials further out into our seas and oceans, beyond the horizon. Would that offer a new solution?

Fukushima Floating Wind Turbine

Floating energy – the Fukushima Floating Wind Turbine Demonstration Project. Image by Fukushima Forward

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The threat of living 20 years less (Day 175)

AntibioticsThe World Health Organization estimates that antibiotic treatments add an average of 20 years to all of our lives.

But life spans are now under threat caused by the rise of antimicrobial resistance, which is threatening to make antibiotics less effective in the future.

In in the 80 years since the discovery of penicillin, our overuse of antibiotics has put pressure on bacteria to evolve resistance, leading to the emergence of untreatable superbugs that threaten the basis of modern medicine.

It’s a challenge that has prompted the re-creation of the 300 hundred year-old Longitude Prize 2014, which is offering a £10 million (US$15.8m) prize fund to help solve the problem of global antibiotic resistance. Continue reading

Bubble Sense (Day 174)

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Many chemical engineers will be familiar with bubbles and foams. They are used widely in foods, drinks, cosmetics, cleaning products… just to name a few.

The benefits of bubbles in products like these are generally self-evident, but, remarkably, they are also being used to help us understand how the very first living cells on Earth might have survived billions of years ago.

If this wasn’t significant enough, the ability of some bubbles to sense their environment to deliver drugs to the right place is being developed at the University of California – Davis (UC Davis), US, and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

The video above demonstrates how tiny, soapy bubbles can reorganize their membranes to let material flow in and out in response to the surrounding environment. Billions of years ago, such emergent behavior could have allowed the earliest living cells to adapt to changing environmental conditions.

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Robots smaller than a grain of sand (Day 173)

Robby the Robot. Picture:  S Bukley Shutterstock.comThose of you with long memories will remember a classic space movie from 1956 called Forbidden Planet. The film (and subsequent cult stage play) features an unusual cinema icon – Robby the Robot.

Full of personality, Robby clanked his way around the film and has been doing so ever since in film and TV cameos up to the present day.

Robby has helped to set an image of our mechanical friends that lingers today, but in reality the world of robotics is much more diverse, and can even appear stranger than fiction itself.

One of the latest robotics projects involving chemical engineers is work being undertaken at the University of Michigan. They are attempting to create robots smaller than a grain of sand and have already shown how chains of self-assembling particles could serve as electrically activated muscles in tiny machines.

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Energy and the high street (Day 172)

Old Petrol station

Image: Chris Jenner, Shutterstock.com

Many consumers find the energy markets frustrating and, whichever country you live in, it is likely that the choice of where you get your gas or electricity from will be limited, even if provided by the private sector.

The most ubiquitous, successful and competitive model we currently have for ‘buying’ energy is the petrol station. The first makeshift ‘filling station’ appeared in 1888 in Germany. The first purpose-built ‘gas station’ was constructed in the USA in 1905.

Today, there’s in excess of a million petrol stations dotted around the world, and it is infrastructure on this scale, along with public acceptance, that are important enablers to the widespread adoption of any technology, especially energy.

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The next generation of ultra-fast charging batteries (Day 171)

Associate professor Chen holding the ultra-fast rechargeable batteries. Image courtesy of Nanyang Technological University

Associate professor Chen holding ultra-fast rechargeable batteries. Image courtesy of Nanyang Technological University

Most of us, at some point in our lives, have been in the situation where our phone batteries have run out of power at the most inconvenient time. And waiting for it to recharge takes longer than expected; it can be one of the most frustrating things in modern day life.

Researchers at Nanyang Technological University (NTU Singapore) from the School of Materials Science and Engineering have tackled this problem by developing new fast-charging, next generation lithium-ion batteries.

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A chemical engineer and the invention of the Post-it Note (Day 170)

Our stationary supplies would not be the same without the Post-it note. Imagine if we couldn’t bookmark our pages as easily, or write reminders to ourselves and co-workers – life would be less organised, and perhaps less colourful.

Post-it notes are available nowadays in a range of sizes, colours, and even fragrances with sales of the product estimated to be US$ 1 billion per year.

Post-it NotesAt IChemE, we even use jigsaw shaped Post-it notes as a method of engaging with our members through our technical strategy, Chemical Engineering Matters. I even flew to the other side of the world to attend the Chemeca 2014 conference in Perth, Australia, with a supply of Post-it notes safely packed in my luggage.

The company that invented Post-it notes was 3M, and in fact, it was a chemical engineer called Arthur Fry who thought up the genius idea of the sticky notes we know and love.

It took over a decade for Post-it notes to be released to the market from its inception. The invention of the Post-it started in the 1968 when Spencer Silver, a senior chemist at 3M, was conducting experiments in order to develop a strong acrylate copolymer-based adhesive for the aerospace industry.

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Five ways to have a successful research career (Day 169)

SuccessWhen I meet with up and coming chemical engineers – and via this blog – I often get asked for advice on what career route they should take.

My guidance is always to look at all the options; do your research; talk to family and friends; gain work experience if possible; and analyse your own strengths and weaknesses. In some cases you may even seek professional careers advice.

But, importantly, the decision must be yours, especially as it may prove to be the most dominant and consistent feature of your life for 50 years or more.

However, one of the options is a career in academia and I hope you find this information useful background to any decision you make.

Relatively few chemical engineering graduates continue on into further study; for example in the UK, 33.1 per cent of chemistry graduates carry out postgraduate study compared with 16.5 per cent of chemical engineering graduates.

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Chemical engineers ‘borrow’ chemical engineering techniques to solve problem (Day 168)

SunriseYes, you did read the title correctly! Chemical engineering is such a big area that sometimes we need look no further than our colleagues to come up with the right solution.

Collaboration and multidisciplinary study have been the buzzwords of research for a long time. But sometimes we forget how broad the field of chemical engineering is and that sometimes it is enough just to learn from other chemical engineers.

One of the common gripes I hear is that major companies are not willing to recruit chemical engineers from different sectors.

Perhaps this research from chemical engineers at Stanford University, who are applying petrochemical processing techniques to store solar energy, will make them think again!

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Food for thought on the water-energy-food nexus (Day 167)

Nexus and networkingIChemE has promoted the concept of the water-energy-food nexus since 2012. I blogged on the topic back in September.

The global challenges presented by the increasing demands for water, energy and food are inextricably linked.

Climate change brings additional pressures. Identifying and implementing solutions for sustainable development requires a systems thinking approach.

The nexus challenge sits at the centre of IChemE’s technical collaboration with the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE).

In November 2014, Chevron Oronite president and IChemE past president, Dr Des King, gave a presentation on the nexus at AIChE’s research conference in San Francisco.  His thinking outlined the complex challenge of population growth, urbanisation and the expanding ‘middle class’ in developing economies; all of which are driving up demand.

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Ten differences between process safety and occupational safety (Day 166)

Work safetyOne of the most important roles that chemical engineers can play is improving safety.

A good example of this is the IChemE Safety Centre (ISC) which sets up a new impetus and framework for process safety.

Despite the good work of chemical engineers in mitigating dangerous events, they still occur.

Often the reason given for these incidents is a lack of understanding of what process safety is and how it differs from occupational safety.

For example people often use this to explain why the BP Texas City refinery explosion and fire, which sadly killed 15 people and injured 180 more, occurred. It has been suggested that there was too great a focus on reducing the high number of occupational safety incidents, rather than the more infrequent but much more serious process safety incidents.

I have put together this list of ten differences between process and occupational (personal) safety to help dispel this (however it should be noted that this list is my opinion and there is a lot of overlap between process and occupational safety – hence the confusion!):

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Fruit flies, canaries, wine and chemical hazards (Day 165)

CanaryIt is less than 30 years since the canary was made ‘redundant’ in UK coal mines. For over 80 years, two canaries were employed by each coal pit to help detect carbon monoxide.

The science of smell and odours is of great importance to the chemical and process industries.

We have duties to ensure outdoor odours are measured, detected and abated and methods are becoming more sophisticated.

There has also been work to create artificial noses and mimic the human sense of smell.

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Shining a light on chemical engineering (Day 164)

IChemE Awards 2014Few professions have the power globally to shape and improve the future.

Chemical engineers have this privilege and this year’s IChemE Global Awards once again illustrated how our profession is setting new standards in healthcare, energy, water, safety and a more sustainable planet, including supporting some of the poorest people in the world.

The Awards finished just over an hour ago and it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening. IChemE was joined by nearly 500 people, who were treated to some excellent entertainment, food and the chance to mingle with colleagues and friends from around the world.

But, as always, the highlight of the evening was the awards and the chance to showcase some of the best chemical engineering talent, innovation and success from around the world.

And in 2014, the night belonged to Australasia, which collected a clutch of awards and highly commended entries, including the overall prize.

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It’s not just the polar bears at risk (Day 163)

Polar bearA common image of mankind’s influence on our planet is to show its impact on nature and wildlife.

In relation to climate change, the plight of the polar bear is often highlighted. But should that image now include humans?

By the end of the century it may be a reality – certainly the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) think so.

In my role as a professor of energy engineering and my previous stern warnings about our dangerously low rate of progress in reducing carbon emissions, you can imagine that I had been eagerly anticipating last Sunday’s release of the IPCC’s Synthesis Report.

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Breaking through the nano-barrier (Day 162)

One of the surprising aspects of my search for some of the best chemical engineering stories across the world is the role of the profession in the fight against disease and serious injury.

Working alongside medical professionals, chemical engineers appear to be innovating at a prodigious rate. There are some excellent stories to tell and the media knows that health and wellbeing issues are of great interest to the public.

TissueOne of the latest innovations to grab the attention of the media is some work by researchers at the New York University Polytechnic School of Engineering.

They have broken new ground in the development of proteins that form specialised fibers used in medicine and nanotechnology.

Currently, knowledge exists to create new proteins that are capable of self-assembling into fibers, but only on the nanoscale.

For the first time, this achievement has been realised on the microscale—a leap of magnitude in size that presents significant new opportunities for using engineered protein fibers. Continue reading

A global search for alternative energy (Day 161)

Mankind has a thirst for knowledge and it is remarkable to think that there are over 22,000 universities around the world.

Brazil (1,648), India (1,638), Russia (1,197) and China (1,169) and Japan (1,004) have an impressive number of institutions, with USA heading the pile with 3,301.

It is always an impressive thought that in many of these Universities there are chemical engineers looking to solve some of the world’s dilemmas and challenges.

Of course, there’s always a risk that research is done in isolation. Thankfully academics are very good at sharing their work, and professional bodies like IChemE host events regularly to bring leaders in education, industry and government together.

My blog has also been created to highlight some of the best chemical engineering stories from around the world. Today we head to Spain, where the UPV/EHU University of the Basque Country is working to develop alternative fuels.

Planta Pirolisis

Alternative fuel pilot facility in the IK4-IKERLAN research centre, basque Country. Image by UPV/EHU.

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Remember, remember the 5th of November (Day 160)

FirecworksIn two days time, many people across the UK will be heading outdoors to enjoy an annual festival called ‘Bonfire Night’, which celebrates the failed attempt by Guy Fawkes and others to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605.

It is a nervous time, leading up to, and on the night for the rescue services with fireworks used widely. Accidents inevitably happen.

In the chemical and process industries, the fireworks industry is one of the most hazardous to work in.

In 2013, there were eight reported accidents in firework factories worldwide including China (3), India (2), Italy, Canada and Vietnam killing at least 48 people and injuring over a hundred.

The worst incident in Northern Vietnam’s Phú Tho Province killed 26 people and damaged an estimated 1,300 households in a three kilometre blast radius.

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Foundations for the future – the STEM pipeline (Day 159)

Classroom science

The Australian Government will invest $12 million to improve the focus (STEM) subjects in primary and secondary schools.

Routinely there are calls and initiatives to boost the number of school pupils who pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects in school and beyond.

In the UK there are different campaigns from Government, industry, charitable organisations and professional bodies. Many of you will have heard about IChemE’s whynotchemeng initiative.

It’s useful to remind ourselves that there are challenges and strategies in place in other areas of the world too.

This month, the Australian government announced an AUS$12 million investment in school STEM subjects. There is a realisation that the STEM skillset is essential to national and international economic growth and competitiveness.

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The dissolving implants (Day 158)

Strained limbAcademics reading this blog will know that the word ‘novel’ can be found in many pieces of published research.

It is always a brave call to use the word, and sometimes it might be better to be more cautious like ancient scholars who coined the phrase: ‘there is nothing new under the sun’.

I read an interesting story recently about medical implants and it sent my mind scurrying back in time to find out when mankind first started using ‘implants’.

The earliest trace I could find was an Ancient Egyptian called Hesi-Ra – one of the world’s first dentists, who lived around 2686 to 2613 BC.

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