I have spoken before about the importance of making sure that we get our chemical engineering voice heard, but I am often shocked when I read stories in the media (particularly those on social media) that have no basis in reality.
It seems to have become the norm for many stories to be perpetuated without even having their basic facts checked.
I am always impressed by the ingenuity of our chemical engineering community to find ways to communicate about our work, so when I was contact by Erik Engebretsen a member of a team of PhD students, lecturers and industrial partners based at UCL (University College London) about their public engagement work I was immediately interested.
In 2011 the idea to start the initiative came from a suggestion by Ralph Clague and Ellen Dowell (the curator of Einstein’s Garden at the Green Man Festival) that it could be possible to power a small tent of electronics at Green Man using just green energy.
Ralph then began searching for UCL students interested in taking on the idea as a summer project, aiming to find a way to build a hydrogen cell system that could provide emission free power for Einstein’s garden.
If we define status in terms of precious metals and elements, platinum nestles in second place below diamond, but above gold, silver and bronze.
Just a few hundred tonnes are mined each year from naturally occurring sources and as a by-product of nickel and copper processing.
Most of it comes out of Africa and its rarity, combined with its uses, make it precious and sought after by both investors and industry.
Platinum has a high resistance to corrosion even at high temperatures. It allows the transmission of electric current and is used in many products including pacemakers, solar cells, electrodes, drugs, oxygen sensors, spark plugs.
It is also a valuable catalyst and around half of platinum’s annual production is used to control vehicle emissions in catalytic converters.
Demand for platinum is high and during the economic meltdown in 2008, its value rose to nearly £50 per gram (US$70 per gram).
As an academic, I know that chemical engineering matters in the research space. And IChemE recognises the importance of forums and meetings where chemical engineering researchers can share their work with their peers.
One such important UK research meeting for chemical engineers is the annual ChemEngDayUK conference.
This event brings together researchers, engineers and scientists from chemical engineering departments across the UK to showcase their latest technological advances and research to leading experts within the field.
There is also specific emphasis placed on collaboration between academia and industry.
Air quality is something that teenagers and school children probably spend little time thinking about. In the area of Wasatch Front, Utah, US, this issue is particularly important due to weather inversion.
Weather or temperature inversions occur when there is an increase in temperature with height. This means that an inversion can trap pollutants below it causing higher pollution levels.
Educating young children about air quality and how the decisions we make as an individual and as a society affect pollution can be a challenge, so a chemical engineering research associate at the University of Utah, Kerry Kelly, came up with a video game idea to do just that.
Kelly wanted school students to start thinking critically about air quality, so working with Roger Altizer, a professor at the University of Utah’s Entertainment Arts and Engineering video game program, the web-based game “Bad Air Day: Play It Like UCAIR” was created.
Loading a dishwasher is one of those daily household chores that usually doesn’t involve too much thought; you pack the dishwasher with dirty crockery, remember to use detergent and then press the on button.
The technique of Positron Emission Particle Tracking, developed at the University of Birmingham, was used to track and analyse the flow of water in the dishwasher through non-invasive 3D spatial detection of radioactively labelled particles i.e. tracers.
The quest for efficiency and productivity in the chemical and process industry is a 24/7 occupation. Extracting every ounce of potential is the goal. But it is not easy and some corners of our profession have big challenges.
Extracting the full potential of biomass is one example. Trees, plants and agricultural waste can provide a valuable source of fuel in the form of ethanol from cellulose.
But the same biomass also consists of lignin – a by-product of ethanol production. Although nearly as abundant as cellulose, its uses are more limited and is often just burnt to power ethanol plants.
If a cellulosic ethanol industry is to grow and be commercially successful, new processes will be needed to convert all of the input biomass into fuel. To improve the economic feasibility, a portion of the lignin needs to be converted to higher-values chemicals or materials.
The challenge has promoted a multi-disciplinary team at Purdue University to take a new look at breaking down the molecules in biomass – using rocket technology!
Take a look at this video which offers a great explanation of their work, including rocket technology which heats the biomass in a few hundredths of a second.
If science can be described as fashionable – and I think it is – so too are some of the discoveries made by the various branches of our profession.
Current social, economic and political issues all influence what succeeds, and what gets left on the shelf.
Two issues which have received universal political pressure in recent times is the reduction of waste – in all its forms – and the protection for our environment.
Packaging, especially plastic bags, is a good example of a raft of measures and initiatives to change behaviour and usage including taxation, charging policies and a move towards more space efficient and compact packaging such as compressed aerosols.
Some of this pressure may see renewed interest in crustacean waste from the fishing industry being used as an alternative to oil-based packaging.
Hello everyone and welcome to today’s blog. Christmas is now over three weeks away, but before we leave the festivities behind for another year I just wanted to make an observation about waste during this indulgent celebration.
A few year’s ago I read a story in Engineering and Technology magazine which suggested the UK consumes around 10 million turkeys, 370 million mince pies, 25 million Christmas puddings, drink 250 million pints of beer and open 35 million bottles of wine.
However, according to WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme), the food and drink wasted in the UK increases by a massive 80 per cent over the Christmas period, with a staggering 230,000 tonnes of food, worth £275 million (US$400 million), is binned during the festive season.
The only good news about waste on this scale is that much of it can be used for the production of energy.
Chemical engineers have played a central role in the development of energy from waste processes including anaerobic digestion and biogas production.
Recent research shows that municipal solid waste (MSW) in China has increased and in 2010 exceeded 350 Mt (equivalent to 440 kg per person).
Chemical engineers are responsible for much the world’s economic output in the form of goods and services consumed by industry and consumers.
In numbers, the world’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) looks something like this: £48,000,000,000,000 (US$75,000,000,000,000).
From a chemical engineering perspective, once those goods have left the factory gate or disappeared down a pipe, there might be a tendency to forget the enormous skill and energy to get these products to market – in the right condition.
The challenge is particularly acute for the distribution of food in countries with large and growing populations and has been highlighted recently by the University of Birmingham in the UK. Continue reading Blowing hot and cold (Day 235)
In principle, their work could result in future chemical factories consisting of colonies of genetically engineered bacteria.
The Wyss Institute team has been able to trick the bacteria into self–eliminating the cells that are not high–output performers, ridding the entire process of the need for human and technological monitoring to make sure the bacteria are producing efficiently, and therefore hugely reducing the overall timescale of chemical production. Continue reading Bacteria on a factory scale (Day 233)
Separations in manufacturing can be challenging and energy intensive. For many products, careful removal of impurities is essential to the formulation of the end product – particularly areas such as pharmaceuticals.
With the growth in biochemical engineering and biopharmaceuticals, the challenge of bio separation is also being more widely addressed. In some mixtures, there are the issues of multi-component separations.
Biopharmaceuticals include proteins and other large molecules which may require complex chromatographic separations. Purification of biopharmaceuticals can account for 50-80% of the total cost of production and is often considered the bottleneck in the process.
Squid, plastic, printing and crude oil are words you don’t normally find in the same sentence, but in this case they are very apt.
Today’s story starts with the squid. Found across all over the world’s oceans, near the surface and at great depths, they are a source of protein and tall tales told by sailors through the ages.
Squid have ‘beaks’ which are made of one of nature’s toughest materials and ideal for catching and eating their prey.
Squid beaks are a mix of water, protein and a natural, plastic-like polymer called chitin. Chitin is the same stuff as in crab shells, scorpion stingers and beetle wings. It’s tougher than tooth enamel, but unlike teeth, it contains no minerals, just organic material.
You may remember that I made a few suggestions in my festive blog, ‘Can chemical engineers save Santa?’. One of my suggestions was to process the reindeer’s poo in order to produce biogas for fuel to help Santa travel around the globe to deliver presents.
But processing waste to biogas for fuel may not be limited to just our planet. Researchers at the University of Florida have been working towards the design of an anaerobic digester that can be used on the moon to power a rocket – this rocket would return astronauts back to earth.
NASA is planning to construct a lunar station over a period of five years between 2019 and 2024 with four crew members. So Pratap C. Pullammandappallil, associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering at the University of Florida and author of the study, has conducted research into optimising technologies for waste digestion.
If you are an early adopter of technology, you may be aware of a new generation of televisions slowly entering the market called OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) TVs.
They aren’t cheap. The few production models available cost between £3,000-£7,000. But they have aspirations of being just 4 mm thick, are able to curve, 3D, have great colour, picture resolution and so on.
Interestingly, OLED’s are made from organic semiconductors, along with other development products such as organic solar cells and organic electronic products including smart labels and wearable electronics.
One of the things that I’m most looking forward to in 2015 is the launch of the IChemE Energy Centre at the end of March.
As you know, chemical engineers are working across the energy sector. Just within this blog, I’ve highlighted research on microbial fuel cells to extract energy from toilet water, efforts to turn waste into fuels and cross-disciplinary thinking to store solar energy.
Once the dust has settled after the merriment and celebration of welcoming in the New Year, it’s only natural to reflect on the year that has passed. 2014 was a great year for me, full of new experiences and meeting new people, which obviously includes a lot of chemical engineers, through my role as IChemE president.
So, on reflection, I’d like to share with you my personal and professional chemical engineering highlights of 2014.
1. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Synthesis Report
The issue of climate change has been top of my agenda for some time, and communicating across the seriousness and urgency needed by our global society to mitigate the effects has been a personal mission of mine.
The British have a reputation for being obsessed with the weather. It’s not uncommon to have what feels like four seasons in a day. And because of this, regardless of subsidies, solar energy hasn’t always been the first choice with the equivalent of just one-in-six days of sunshine each year,
But that doesn’t mean that solar energy isn’t important, especially if there are storage solutions on the horizon.
Around about now, a new solar farm in Hadley, Telford and Wrekin, will be plugged into the UK’s National Grid. It will have 15,000 solar panels ready to generate enough energy to power 800 homes.
This might be modest in comparison to the £1.4 billion (US$2.2 billion) Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the Mojave Desert, USA, with its 170,000 panels capable of powering 140,000 homes – but it is still significant for a ‘cloudy’ country.
In Europe, there was a similar anti-car theme, when, around the same time, the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, announced she wanted to ban diesel cars and the pollution they bring from the streets of the French capital.
The Mayor also wanted to limit traffic in pollution hotspots, by only allowing ultra-low emission vehicles within them. In addition, new speed limits were mooted of 18 mph (30 km/h).
These proposals would be a major challenge in France with around 80 per cent of the cars on the country’s roads being diesel-powered.
From next month, France will start applying stickers to vehicles emitting the most pollution; diesel cars more than 13 years old will get a red sticker.
It is clear there is a mini backlash against cars at present, but where does all this leave current transport policy and how can engineers influence it?
If you’re a fan of the Olympics, and swimming in particular, you’ll be familiar with the size of the pool (50 m x 25 m). But have you ever wondered how much water it holds and how long it might take for one person to drink it?
Depending on depth, the pool will hold between 1.25 million litres of water (1 m depth) to 2.5 million litres of water (2 m depth). And if you assume we all drink between 2-4 litres of water each day, that would take over 3,400 years for one person to consume.
In fact, many of us will consume all the water in the smaller size swimming pool in just one year. It’s all due to the amount of ‘hidden water’ we consume in our food.
These numbers may be hard to believe but here’s a few examples of how easy it is to build up your water footprint based on three main meals a day – even without dessert!
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.