I was so impressed with today’s guest blogger’s recent webinar (arranged by IChemE’s Food and Drink SIG) I got in touch with him to ask about his work and why he became a chemical engineer. Thomas Brewer works in the food industry for SABMiller as an engineering consultant.
He has had an interesting career path, so I’ll let him explain it in more detail:
I am perhaps unusual amongst our profession as I knew from a very early age that I wanted to be a chemical engineer. At about the age of 11, I was becoming more aware of the world around me and noted the science articles about Brazil, the oil crisis and biofuels in newspapers. I decided chemical engineering would help me be a part of the solution and give me an opportunity to make an impact.
If asked what today’s big challenges are, I would say we already recognise the issues around water and energy and we are going to have to deal with protein. Every day our society downgrades or throws away protein, we need to get better at valuing it for what it is.
There are many universities offering great degrees, I studied at the University of Cambridge, where students begin studying very broadly, taking natural sciences and then specialise in chemical engineering. I enjoyed my time at Cambridge so go back there regularly, and occasionally deliver guest lectures.
After graduation I married Naomi, a fellow student who I met in a geology lecture theatre. Geology is a fascinating subject with a very sociable department! At the same time I started working for British Sugar, a company rooted in agriculture, powered by science and driven by engineering. The strong culture and variety of roles kept me with the company for 14 years.
Even when my work has been operational, I have taken the opportunity to be very project focused, this allows more room for innovation. I love the creativity of drawing a line on a piece of paper and then growing it into reality.
None of my family are chemical engineers, my father is an architect, who thinks I am an architect in the chemical engineering industry, which I guess isn’t far from the truth!
During my time at British Sugar, I had many opportunities for which I am grateful, for example I was able to live with my family in rural China for a year.
Three years ago, I moved to work for SABMiller, and enjoy the easy joke about being a Brewer twice over, as my surname as well as for a living!
SABMiller is one of the largest brewing and beverage companies in the world and provides a great scope for creative engineering, within its strong brewing tradition.
At SABMiller, I seek to bring new technology streams into existing processes. My most exciting days are when I commission a project or am running a trial. These days don’t occur every month, but I see the rest of my time as spent building towards them.
As you would expect from a beer company there is a lovely culture of discussing concepts and ideas over a beer after work; which is often a constructive end to the day!
I typically have three main projects on the go at one time, with a few more in the background. I have recently come back from a couple of weeks in Tanzania, where I have been supporting the commissioning of one project. I’ll be back there regularly to help optimise and check how it is going.
My second project is currently running pilot trials in the UK – a simple but exciting project that involves lots of people, so I am able to stand a bit further back from the project.
The third project is at the conceptual design stage, which I am currently writing up. Hopefully this will get included as part of the next green field development.
The beauty of having several projects on the go at any one time is that when one stalls there is always plenty to do.
I’m proud to say I use chemical engineering every day. Perhaps some of my lecturers might think that it isn’t pure chemical engineering anymore, but there are some equations that I use on a daily basis – like mass balance or heat transfer.
It is a struggle to find time to fit in IChemE membership interviews and connecting with the wider community through webinars and subject matter groups, but it is often well worth it.
Finding solutions for challenges, like climate change or food sustainability, is all about communication and people. People want the answers, but to build trust in our answers we have a responsibility to help them understand the processes involved.
The world is rapidly changing and we don’t have the luxury of keeping with traditional linear thinking; we need to move with the times. Chemical engineers are good at finding solutions, but not always great at communicating them. I don’t think I am alone in our profession saying I could do with getting better at this!
To me, chemical engineering is about solving problems and helping people. An advantage of being part of a big company with its big footprint is the opportunity, with shared learning, to make a bigger difference. I am quite driven to improve the quality of life within the communities in which I work, which is also a strong theme within SABMiller.
Studying chemical engineering is phenomenally good training, even if it you don’t end up using it. My advice to young chemical engineers would be to find out about what is going on in the world; get stuck in and really understand the issues from other people’s perspective.