When explaining chemical engineering to people I often say look around you, everything you can see or touch wouldn’t be here without chemical engineering.
Christmas offers an excellent opportunity to showcase twelve products that you might miss the chemical engineering in, if you don’t know where to look:
The production of chocolate is now big business and highly reliant on the latest technology.
Chemical engineers are our modern chocolatiers – not just making the perfect traditional chocolates, but helping to create new and more sustainable products, even with less fat and sugar.
2. Christmas Trees
While some still choose to celebrate Christmas by decorating a real tree, many have a synthetic tree. The materials and processes used to make these fake trees all rely upon chemical engineering fundamentals, with most modern trees being made from PVC (polyvinyl chloride).
I particularly enjoy this (perhaps a little dated) video from the ‘How it’s made’ television show about producing artificial Christmas trees:
We wouldn’t be able to achieve this feat of culinary mastery without the help of the home oven and whether powered by gas or electricity a chemical engineer has worked to produce this energy supply for you.
Chemical engineers around the world are working to ensure that your energy supply keeps going and remains as sustainable as possible.
A good way to end any Christmas celebration is with a cheese board. The use of natural rennet or man-made enzymes, to kick-start the curdling of the cheese, is an important part of the engineering process, with many more challenges along the way.
However, eating large amounts of food at Christmas is not good for our health. One way chemical engineers are trying to combat obesity is by working out ways to lower the fat content in cheese.
Cheese is a great product to target in this way as it is a good source of protein and other nutrients – it just needs less fat to be healthier!
Every year there is huge interest over Christmas television programmes, but I think very few people consider what a feat of engineering a television is. As this product becomes increasingly complex I think it is interesting to take stock of the huge amount of research that has gone in to giving us the televisions we see today.
Of course, many of the components and materials used in TV manufacture require the skills of chemical engineers.
6. Mince Pies
One of my favourite things to eat at Christmas is mince pies. Last year, the UK managed to eat 300 million mince pies between September and Christmas – all made with chemical and process engineering skills.
But there are alternatives, if slightly unusual. I was very impressed by a project to raise awareness in food sustainability from The Big Bang UK Young Scientists & Engineers Fair; ‘Mince Flies’!
The students were challenged to think of ways of tackling food sustainability – for example using alternative protein sources. This resulted in the ‘Mince Flies’ made with mealworm beetle larvae and locusts, mixed with the traditional dried fruit and spices. Have a watch to see what happened when they offered them to the UK public:
The invention of plastic and its use in toy production revolutionised an industry. Plastic offers a way to produce many, low-cost, durable toys quickly.
Historically plastics have been produced from materials derived from fossil fuels, but now chemical engineering are working to produce a range of bio-plastics from renewable sources. These new plastics can help us reduce the carbon footprint of our Christmas toys.
Alcohol is not a new product, but its production can be thought of a series of chemical engineering steps, including separation processes and biochemical reactions, that result in the end product. Even by-products can be utilised by chemical engineers in innovative ways.
So when you raise a glass this Christmas think of all the engineering work that has gone into creating your favourite tipple.
Christmas can be a period of huge waste. This is something that chemical engineers are working to change by improving our recycling capabilities and their efficiencies.
There is always a lot of discussion associated with food waste at this time of year, which is huge, but I think we often forget about the wasted paper, metals and plastics we use in increasingly large amounts at this time of year.
Chemical engineers have developed ways to extract and reuse metals, remove the ink from paper and separate out plastics by machine for reuse.
10. Fighting indigestion
To recover from all our Christmas excesses many of us might be in need of an antacid. The pharmaceuticals industry is reliant on chemical engineers to produce their products, antacids included. Antacids are bases that work by neutralising the acid imbalance which gives us heartburn and are commonly hydroxides, carbonates or bicarbonates.
11. Cards and wrapping paper
Part of making Christmas special is card and gift-giving. All that paper engineering and printing takes a lot of effort and skill, with some estimates suggesting the UK alone uses around 11,000 tonnes of wrapping paper each year.
Many chemical engineers are behind the manufacturing processes, inks and dyes needed to create the colourful and distinctive designs synonymous with Christmas.
There are even universities with specialist departments dedicated to paper and print engineering!
I am always amazed at the number of people who have a background in chemical engineering, that you wouldn’t expect and the current Pope is no exception. Before dedicating his life to the Catholic Church Pope Francis graduated as a chemical technician and then went on to earn a Masters Degree in chemistry from the University of Buenos Aries.
Merry Chemical Engineering Christmas!