Making sense of all the facts (Day 249)

FactsI 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 have been a close follower of the work of Sense About Science for a while now and was pleased to see the launch of Fact Check Central as a medium people can use to read, search and share fact checking blogs.

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Youthful enthusiasm and precious metals (Day 247)

PlatinumIf 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).

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Keeping us all safer (Day 246)

Engineers and chemical engineers are continually trying to improve quality of life. But sometimes, simply protecting what we have already is the most important thing – life itself.

Over the past 15 years, terrorism has made the world more cautious, with increasing amounts of money spent on intelligence and prevention. Recent events in Paris suggest how hard the challenge is.

Some of the answers to detecting terrorism are technological and involves the expertise of engineers like Ling Zang, a University of Utah professor of materials science and engineering.

Ling Zang

Ling Zang, a University of Utah professor of materials science and engineering, holds a prototype detector that uses a new type of carbon nanotube material for use in handheld scanners to detect explosives, toxic chemicals and illegal drugs. Photo Credit: Dan Hixon, University of Utah College of Engineering

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Chemical engineering research matters (Day 245)

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.

ChemEngDayUK 2015

ChemEngDayUK 2015

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.

In 2015, the third annual ChemEngDayUK conference will hosted by the chemical and biological engineering department at the University of Sheffield.

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Gaming to teach about air pollution (Day 244)

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.

(L-R): Professor Roger Altizer and Kerry Kelly. Image courtesy of University of Utah College of Engineering

(L-R): Professor Roger Altizer and Kerry Kelly. Image courtesy of University of Utah College of Engineering

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.

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How to best load a dishwasher, by a chemical engineer (Day 243)

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.

But there is more to loading a dishwasher than meets the eye as chemical engineers at the University of Birmingham, UK, in collaboration with industry, have conducted research on how best to load a dishwasher.

Dishwasher in between PEPT cameras. Image courtesy of Chemical Engineering Journal

Dishwasher in between PEPT cameras. Image courtesy of Chemical Engineering Journal

Dr. Raul Pérez-Mohedano, who led the project, published the group’s findings in the article, Positron Emission Particle Tracking (PEPT) for the analysis of water motion in domestic dishwasherfor Elsevier’s Chemical Engineering Journal.

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.

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Blast-off biomass (Day 242)

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.

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Using cellular backpacks to deliver drugs (Day 241)

back packThe way we deliver treatments to our bodies can have a huge impact on how successful it is. Being able to target a specific area can make drug delivery more efficient and have a greater impact.

As engineers we are always looking for ways to simplify procedures and get the best for consumers.

Often the best lessons we can learn come from taking cues from systems that already exist in nature.

New research from the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has done just that by developing a method of targeting inflamed tissues with cellular backpacks.

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Freshly packed in crustaceans (Day 240)

Crab clawIf 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.

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The advance of desalination (Day 239)

Water tapIn 2013, IChemE took a glance into the future and highlighted how many desalination plants there might be in the UK by 2050.

Desalination plants are rare in relatively wet countries like the UK, but fairly common in Southern Europe and the Middle East.

More recently countries such as Australia has invested in desalination plants to solve some of their drought problems, with around eight facilities either built, in progress or planned since 2006.

Worldwide, there are around 13,000 desalination plants in operation or under construction in 150 countries.

By 2050, DesalData predict that the number of desalination plants across the world will more than double with a further 18,500 desalination plants becoming operational.

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The Complexities of Carbon Capture and Storage (Day 238)

CO2One of the things I love most about chemical engineering is the fact that it encourages us to consider all the possibilities.

Some of the best work being done in carbon capture and storage (CCS) is helping us to question whether the assumptions we make are correct.

Research from the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology at the University of Cambridge suggests that natural geochemical reactions can delay or even prevent the spreading of carbon dioxide (CO2) in subsurface aquifers.

This implies the carbon storage in the underground reservoirs of the Earth may be more complex than originally thought.

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The ultra-biochemical engineers (Day 237)

Chemistry and TabletsI have talked before about the work of chemical engineers in pharmaceutical production and the important role they fill in scaling-up lab designed drugs to produce them in large numbers, for example ‘Designing future medicines – the work of the chemical engineer’.

However, biochemical engineers also play a key role in using small quantities of materials to identify the critical points of manufacturing in a technique called ultra-scale down.

Many pharmaceutical companies are now using this UCL (University College London) technology to speed up the time taken to produce new drugs, leading to big savings.

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Leaching the value from waste (Day 236)

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.

Biofuel plant

Biofuel plant

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).

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Blowing hot and cold (Day 235)

Hot and coldChemical 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

A new focus on water (Day 234)

Eye looking over waterWhen universities establish a new research centre it’s worth taking note.

Not just because it’s a way to further our knowledge, but, in the case of the University of Bath’s new Water Innovation and Research Centre (WIRC), it reflects the fact there are growing and significant challenges ahead.

The issues go well beyond the obvious of providing clean water for everyone – although with a growing population this will be hard enough.

The challenges include a completely fresh approach to using water more efficiently – whether it’s the treatment of our waste, use by industry, processing of our food or consumption at home.

WIRC has been established to provide a unique environment for conducting research into water technologies and resource management.

It’s a collaboration between the University of Bath and Wessex Water and has ambitions to contribute to future water policy and the development of innovative and integrated sustainable water treatment systems. Continue reading

Bacteria on a factory scale (Day 233)

Genetic engineering and genetic modification are tools that have been carefully and cautiously introduced around the world.

There are varying degrees of resistance to it use in different countries, but this hasn’t stopped some nations and researchers exploring the opportunities.

Recent research includes the genetic engineering of a malaria parasite to act as a vaccine, and of course there is the more wide-scale introduction of genetically modified crops to improve yields.

Ecoli

Wyss Institute researchers have genetically modified E. coli bacteria to produce up to 30–fold more quantities of chemicals at a thousand–fold faster rate than previously possible. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University and Steve Gschmeissner/SPL

One of the latest developments includes modification of bacteria in such a way that they can be programmed to produce specific chemicals resulting from their metabolic processes, and how much of it.

The work has been pioneered by the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and Harvard Medical School.

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

The chemical engineering ‘down-sizers’ (Day 232)

Molecular DreamChemical engineers have been described as industry’s ‘super-sizers’. They can take the smallest product developed in a lab and reproduce it on a huge scale, perfectly.

But we also operate at the other end of the scale – at the nano-level.

It’s an area with lots of controversy surrounding its use. I think most of comes from a lack of understanding, even within our profession.

Anything we can do better to understand how things work at this small scale can only help further our acceptance – and the publics – understanding of when it is appropriate to use such materials.

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Model maths (Day 231)

PharmaceuticalsSeparations 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.

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Using innovation to solve problems quickly (Day 230)

One of the greatest skills of chemical engineers is their ability to innovate. But I am constantly amazed at all the new ideas and processes that are being developed.

United Utilities Logo

One that impressed me greatly was the winner of IChemE’s Global Water Management and Supply Award; a result of collaboration between United Utilities and KMI Plus.

This project succeeded in restoring the required design capacity to an important works which was suffering from process problems and reduced output.

They managed to do this while reducing the construction period from 30 to 10 months and achieved major cost savings.

The design and construction of the works included the latest thinking on rapid gravity filter process design and using pre-fabricated modular stainless steel units.

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Wood-ship ahoy! (Day 229)

Cargo shipShipping is one of the last remaining parts of our global transport networks to feel the effects of regulations designed to reduce pollution and mitigate climate change.

New regulations from the International maritime Organisation kick in this month to limit the maximum sulphur content of fuel oils used by shipping to 0.10 per cent m/m.

On the horizon, more change is on the way, especially in Europe.

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Deep sea printers (Day 228)

Reef SquidSquid, 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.

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Human waste could power a lunar space mission (Day 227)

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.

Moon and earthBut 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.

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Protecting your e-device (Day 226)

OLED TVIf 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.

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Who’d want to be an economist! (Day 225)

Economic dataAt the start of 2014, who would have predicted that oil prices would end up in the doldrums by the end of the year, especially with a slightly more positive economic outlook?

Some of the world’s oil prices are the lowest for over five years with Brent crude oil wallowing below $55 per barrel.

The IEA recently cut the outlook for 2015 global oil demand growth by 230,000 barrels per day to 0.9 million barrels per day on lower expectations for the former Soviet Union and other oil‐exporting countries.

Good luck to those charged with the onerous task of understanding and explaining issues such as the macroeconomics of crude oil.

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2015: the year of the ‘Energy Centre’ (Day 224)

EnergyOne 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.

What’s more, we bring a systems-thinking approach to a problem that demands it. We deal with flows of material and energy in pipes and cables; the global energy system as a whole involves the flow of material and energy through the global economy. Continue reading

Chemical engineering (and other) highlights of 2014 (Day 223)

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

Polar bearThe 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.

So, you can imagine my delight when the IPCC published their Synthesis Report.

After all, ‘It’s not just the polar bears at risk‘. The report dismissed the conspiracy that climate change isn’t happening, it is real and we need to do something about it, and fast!

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Energy – night and day (Day 222)

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.

Solar farm construction

Construction of Telford and Wrekin Council’s solar farm, UK. Image by Telford and Wrekin Council

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.

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Motoring slowly towards the future (Day 221)

Car pollutionTowards the end of last year, car pollution came under the scrutiny of some UK politicians who recommended that new schools, care homes and hospitals should be built far away from major roads because of the dangers of air pollution.

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?

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Can you drink all the water in an Olympic size swimming pool? (Day 220)

Swimming poolIf 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!

Breakfast – 1,260 litres

Meal

A breakfast of two eggs, two sausages, beans, two slices of toast and butter has a water footprint of 1260.5 litres. Data and image courtesy of Onedrop.org. Click image to visit website.

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Best blogs of 2014: A day in the life of a chemical engineering graduate (Day 219)

Graduation hatsHello and happy New Year everyone (if you are a follower of the Gregorian calendar).

This is the last of my seasonal review of the most popular blogs from 2014, and we’ll start again from tomorrow with some new stories showcasing our great profession.

At the start of 2015, I’m sure some of you are thinking about the future. Today’s ‘guest blog’ may help some of our younger readers who are still thinking about which career to pursue.

It’s a unique insight into a typical day of a chemical engineer just starting out in their working life. Thanks again for reading.

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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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