12 December 2015 will go down in history as the day the world agreed to do something about climate change. The impact of countries around the world reaching such an agreement cannot be ignored. However, for us to actually achieve the targets set in Paris we need to act now.
Chemical engineers have been working for some time to find and implement ways to combat climate change.
Here are just ten of the ways that chemical engineers can save the world from the impact of climate change:
Chemical engineering makes its professional contribution by understanding how whole systems work, and generating engineered system solutions to meet desired targets. The ideology and discussion behind climate change solutions is in place, but it needs a chemical engineering, systems thinking approach to apply the technical solutions.
2. Energy efficiency
Becoming more energy efficient is the obvious easy win (at least for chemical engineers). The 2012 Global Energy Assessment stated that 66 per cent of the energy produced today is wasted. The chemicals sector is the most energy intensive industry, but current internal rates of return stand at just 12-19 per cent. Chemical engineers can change this and make energy efficiency the number one priority
The low carbon energy system can only work if the way we generate and consume energy changes. This means applying renewable energy technologies, such as wind and solar. A lot of the problems with applying these technologies is finding a way to make them more cost efficient. Chemical engineers are working on ways of producing low-cost renewable energy sources, like spray on solar cells.
4. Carbon capture, storage and utilisation
If we intend to continue using fossil fuels, we need to decarbonise electricity production; and carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a readily deployable technology solution to do this. Chemical engineers are also working on technologies to turn captured carbon into useful products, such as plastic bottles, face cream and wood glue. Chemical engineers have the ability to deploy CCS technology today, and in so doing, take a major step forwards to the least-cost mitigation of dangerous climate change.
Nuclear power is already playing a vital role in decarbonising the global energy economy. Its capacity to provide base-load power makes it a stable and low-carbon energy supply, because nuclear doesn’t emit carbon dioxide during power generation. Chemical engineers are essential in the nuclear industry, not only do they work to design new reactors, but they also ensure standards of safety, efficiency and environmental performance are met.
6. Sustainable bioenergy
More than half of the world’s annual carbon emissions could be prevented over the next 50 years by using sustainable bioenergy. However, the raw materials used in bioenergy production – food crops like maize and sugarcane – come with a lot of associated challenges. Chemical engineers have the technology to use these materials efficiently and bioenergy production has the potential to be cost effective.
7. Unconventional gas
Using unconventional gas (for example shale gas or coal seam gas) is a more environmentally friendly option than existing fossil fuels. Switching, for example, from coal to gas can result in around 50 per cent less carbon dioxide emissions being produced in power generation. Chemical engineers work to ensure that extraction of unconventional gases is performed to the highest environmental standards.
8. Energy storage and grid management
Being more flexible in the way we generate and consume energy will require new energy storage. When we think of storage batteries are what commonly spring to mind, but other ideas include using embodied energy in chemicals as stored energy – to be released on demand via chemical conversions. Effective energy storage is a major part of the climate change solution, and chemical engineers can help.
9. Sustainable food
Food is a major greenhouse gas emitter. The agriculture sector emits 24 per cent of global GHG emissions, the second biggest after only energy, and these emissions are increasing – driven by population growth and changes in dietary preferences. Chemical engineers are helping to cut emissions by making food production more efficient, for example by making fertiliser in a low-energy way or by reusing food waste.
10. Water-energy-food Nexus
Global demand for food, energy and water is increasing, these resources cannot be considered in isolation. But most importantly water, energy, food and climate change are intrinsically linked. Chemical engineers play a major role in delivering sustainable solutions at the water-energy-food Nexus. We should not think of water, energy and food as separate entities, they are dependent on each other, Nexus-thinking should play a part in all our climate change solutions.
We all need to work together to avoid the catastrophic consequences of climate change. Chemical engineers are developing the technology, but we also need to stand up, speak out and call for action. Because together, we can prevent climate change.
There are many more ways that chemical engineers are working to combat climate change. Why not comment below to share how your work is saving the world!