Can chemical engineers change the world? (Day 177)

Change the WorldIn IChemE’s marketing literature you’ll often find phrases like: ‘Join approaching 40,000 peers worldwide to share best practice, find out about new discoveries and change the world.’

I know from talking to colleagues at IChemE the phrase ‘change the world’ has been pounced upon and some believe it is hard to justify.

However, chemical engineers, chemical engineering principles and the fields we work in can and do change the world and you’ll find at least 177 examples in my blog.

If you’re still not convinced let’s take a look at this year’s World Changing Ideas 2014 published by Scientific American. Continue reading Can chemical engineers change the world? (Day 177)

A floating economy (Day 176)

Two projects have caught my eye recently that may give some hints about where we might build some of our power stations and processing facilities in the future.

Quite rightly, land-based power stations and industrial units are subject to careful scrutiny before planning permission is given. The fact they are so visible and close to communities means the opinions of thousands of people may need to be considered.

Even offshore facilities like fixed wind farms, visible from coastlines, bear the scars of public consultation.

But what if we generated our power or processed raw materials further out into our seas and oceans, beyond the horizon. Would that offer a new solution?

Fukushima Floating Wind Turbine
Floating energy – the Fukushima Floating Wind Turbine Demonstration Project. Image by Fukushima Forward

Continue reading A floating economy (Day 176)

The threat of living 20 years less (Day 175)

AntibioticsThe World Health Organization estimates that antibiotic treatments add an average of 20 years to all of our lives.

But life spans are now under threat caused by the rise of antimicrobial resistance, which is threatening to make antibiotics less effective in the future.

In in the 80 years since the discovery of penicillin, our overuse of antibiotics has put pressure on bacteria to evolve resistance, leading to the emergence of untreatable superbugs that threaten the basis of modern medicine.

It’s a challenge that has prompted the re-creation of the 300 hundred year-old Longitude Prize 2014, which is offering a £10 million (US$15.8m) prize fund to help solve the problem of global antibiotic resistance. Continue reading The threat of living 20 years less (Day 175)

Bubble Sense (Day 174)


Many chemical engineers will be familiar with bubbles and foams. They are used widely in foods, drinks, cosmetics, cleaning products… just to name a few.

The benefits of bubbles in products like these are generally self-evident, but, remarkably, they are also being used to help us understand how the very first living cells on Earth might have survived billions of years ago.

If this wasn’t significant enough, the ability of some bubbles to sense their environment to deliver drugs to the right place is being developed at the University of California – Davis (UC Davis), US, and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

The video above demonstrates how tiny, soapy bubbles can reorganize their membranes to let material flow in and out in response to the surrounding environment. Billions of years ago, such emergent behavior could have allowed the earliest living cells to adapt to changing environmental conditions.

Continue reading Bubble Sense (Day 174)

Robots smaller than a grain of sand (Day 173)

Robby the Robot. Picture:  S Bukley Shutterstock.comThose of you with long memories will remember a classic space movie from 1956 called Forbidden Planet. The film (and subsequent cult stage play) features an unusual cinema icon – Robby the Robot.

Full of personality, Robby clanked his way around the film and has been doing so ever since in film and TV cameos up to the present day.

Robby has helped to set an image of our mechanical friends that lingers today, but in reality the world of robotics is much more diverse, and can even appear stranger than fiction itself.

One of the latest robotics projects involving chemical engineers is work being undertaken at the University of Michigan. They are attempting to create robots smaller than a grain of sand and have already shown how chains of self-assembling particles could serve as electrically activated muscles in tiny machines.

Continue reading Robots smaller than a grain of sand (Day 173)

Energy and the high street (Day 172)

Old Petrol station
Image: Chris Jenner,

Many consumers find the energy markets frustrating and, whichever country you live in, it is likely that the choice of where you get your gas or electricity from will be limited, even if provided by the private sector.

The most ubiquitous, successful and competitive model we currently have for ‘buying’ energy is the petrol station. The first makeshift ‘filling station’ appeared in 1888 in Germany. The first purpose-built ‘gas station’ was constructed in the USA in 1905.

Today, there’s in excess of a million petrol stations dotted around the world, and it is infrastructure on this scale, along with public acceptance, that are important enablers to the widespread adoption of any technology, especially energy.

Continue reading Energy and the high street (Day 172)

Food for thought on the water-energy-food nexus (Day 167)

Nexus and networkingIChemE has promoted the concept of the water-energy-food nexus since 2012. I blogged on the topic back in September.

The global challenges presented by the increasing demands for water, energy and food are inextricably linked.

Climate change brings additional pressures. Identifying and implementing solutions for sustainable development requires a systems thinking approach.

The nexus challenge sits at the centre of IChemE’s technical collaboration with the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE).

In November 2014, Chevron Oronite president and IChemE past president, Dr Des King, gave a presentation on the nexus at AIChE’s research conference in San Francisco.  His thinking outlined the complex challenge of population growth, urbanisation and the expanding ‘middle class’ in developing economies; all of which are driving up demand.

Continue reading Food for thought on the water-energy-food nexus (Day 167)

Fruit flies, canaries, wine and chemical hazards (Day 165)

CanaryIt is less than 30 years since the canary was made ‘redundant’ in UK coal mines. For over 80 years, two canaries were employed by each coal pit to help detect carbon monoxide.

The science of smell and odours is of great importance to the chemical and process industries.

We have duties to ensure outdoor odours are measured, detected and abated and methods are becoming more sophisticated.

There has also been work to create artificial noses and mimic the human sense of smell.

Continue reading Fruit flies, canaries, wine and chemical hazards (Day 165)

Shining a light on chemical engineering (Day 164)

IChemE Awards 2014Few professions have the power globally to shape and improve the future.

Chemical engineers have this privilege and this year’s IChemE Global Awards once again illustrated how our profession is setting new standards in healthcare, energy, water, safety and a more sustainable planet, including supporting some of the poorest people in the world.

The Awards finished just over an hour ago and it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening. IChemE was joined by nearly 500 people, who were treated to some excellent entertainment, food and the chance to mingle with colleagues and friends from around the world.

But, as always, the highlight of the evening was the awards and the chance to showcase some of the best chemical engineering talent, innovation and success from around the world.

And in 2014, the night belonged to Australasia, which collected a clutch of awards and highly commended entries, including the overall prize.

Continue reading Shining a light on chemical engineering (Day 164)

It’s not just the polar bears at risk (Day 163)

Polar bearA common image of mankind’s influence on our planet is to show its impact on nature and wildlife.

In relation to climate change, the plight of the polar bear is often highlighted. But should that image now include humans?

By the end of the century it may be a reality – certainly the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) think so.

In my role as a professor of energy engineering and my previous stern warnings about our dangerously low rate of progress in reducing carbon emissions, you can imagine that I had been eagerly anticipating last Sunday’s release of the IPCC’s Synthesis Report.

Continue reading It’s not just the polar bears at risk (Day 163)

Breaking through the nano-barrier (Day 162)

One of the surprising aspects of my search for some of the best chemical engineering stories across the world is the role of the profession in the fight against disease and serious injury.

Working alongside medical professionals, chemical engineers appear to be innovating at a prodigious rate. There are some excellent stories to tell and the media knows that health and wellbeing issues are of great interest to the public.

TissueOne of the latest innovations to grab the attention of the media is some work by researchers at the New York University Polytechnic School of Engineering.

They have broken new ground in the development of proteins that form specialised fibers used in medicine and nanotechnology.

Currently, knowledge exists to create new proteins that are capable of self-assembling into fibers, but only on the nanoscale.

For the first time, this achievement has been realised on the microscale—a leap of magnitude in size that presents significant new opportunities for using engineered protein fibers. Continue reading Breaking through the nano-barrier (Day 162)

A global search for alternative energy (Day 161)

Mankind has a thirst for knowledge and it is remarkable to think that there are over 22,000 universities around the world.

Brazil (1,648), India (1,638), Russia (1,197) and China (1,169) and Japan (1,004) have an impressive number of institutions, with USA heading the pile with 3,301.

It is always an impressive thought that in many of these Universities there are chemical engineers looking to solve some of the world’s dilemmas and challenges.

Of course, there’s always a risk that research is done in isolation. Thankfully academics are very good at sharing their work, and professional bodies like IChemE host events regularly to bring leaders in education, industry and government together.

My blog has also been created to highlight some of the best chemical engineering stories from around the world. Today we head to Spain, where the UPV/EHU University of the Basque Country is working to develop alternative fuels.

Planta Pirolisis
Alternative fuel pilot facility in the IK4-IKERLAN research centre, basque Country. Image by UPV/EHU.

Continue reading A global search for alternative energy (Day 161)

Remember, remember the 5th of November (Day 160)

FirecworksIn two days time, many people across the UK will be heading outdoors to enjoy an annual festival called ‘Bonfire Night’, which celebrates the failed attempt by Guy Fawkes and others to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605.

It is a nervous time, leading up to, and on the night for the rescue services with fireworks used widely. Accidents inevitably happen.

In the chemical and process industries, the fireworks industry is one of the most hazardous to work in.

In 2013, there were eight reported accidents in firework factories worldwide including China (3), India (2), Italy, Canada and Vietnam killing at least 48 people and injuring over a hundred.

The worst incident in Northern Vietnam’s Phú Tho Province killed 26 people and damaged an estimated 1,300 households in a three kilometre blast radius.

Continue reading Remember, remember the 5th of November (Day 160)

Foundations for the future – the STEM pipeline (Day 159)

Classroom science
The Australian Government will invest $12 million to improve the focus (STEM) subjects in primary and secondary schools.

Routinely there are calls and initiatives to boost the number of school pupils who pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects in school and beyond.

In the UK there are different campaigns from Government, industry, charitable organisations and professional bodies. Many of you will have heard about IChemE’s whynotchemeng initiative.

It’s useful to remind ourselves that there are challenges and strategies in place in other areas of the world too.

This month, the Australian government announced an AUS$12 million investment in school STEM subjects. There is a realisation that the STEM skillset is essential to national and international economic growth and competitiveness.

Continue reading Foundations for the future – the STEM pipeline (Day 159)

The dissolving implants (Day 158)

Strained limbAcademics reading this blog will know that the word ‘novel’ can be found in many pieces of published research.

It is always a brave call to use the word, and sometimes it might be better to be more cautious like ancient scholars who coined the phrase: ‘there is nothing new under the sun’.

I read an interesting story recently about medical implants and it sent my mind scurrying back in time to find out when mankind first started using ‘implants’.

The earliest trace I could find was an Ancient Egyptian called Hesi-Ra – one of the world’s first dentists, who lived around 2686 to 2613 BC.

Continue reading The dissolving implants (Day 158)

The red mud challenge (Day 156)

Drinks cans Image by Radu Bercan / Shutterstock.comAluminium is everywhere. In fact, it’s the third most abundant element on planet earth after oxygen and silicon.

Its low density and strength, coupled with its outstanding resistance to corrosion, make it one of the most useful metals we have.

Aluminium and its alloys are essential to the aerospace and construction industries where it finds widespread use as a structural material.

Our homes wouldn’t be the same without Aluminium either. Modern doors and window frames are commonly constructed from PVC coated aluminium. Many kitchen utensils are made from aluminium as are the cans that contain beer and soft drinks.

And where would we be without that handy roll of ‘tin’ foil, which is of course made from – you’ve guessed it; aluminium.

Continue reading The red mud challenge (Day 156)

Electrically fantastic plastic (Day 154)

Plastic has many properties such as its durability and versatility. In recent years polymers have also become increasingly recognised for being ‘smart’.

Shape-memory polymers, pH-sensitive polymers and temperature-responsive polymers have been developed. And now there is an emerging class of electrically conductive plastics called “radical polymers.”

5v - BWB - TOC Graphic
An emerging class of electrically conductive plastics are called “radical polymers.” The graphic at left depicts the structure of a polymer. At right, transparent polymer overlays the Purdue logo. Image by Purdue University

Continue reading Electrically fantastic plastic (Day 154)

‘Hand-made’ pills inspired by a starfish (Day 153)

I’ve blogged a few times over the past five months about 3D printing. It’s one of those technological developments which has attracted the attention of chemical engineers, despite some apparent anomalies.

Our profession spends much of its time producing items on a massive scale. We deal in huge volumes which provide food, energy, water and healthcare to hundreds of millions of people.

By contrast, 3D-printing operates in small numbers – even ones and twos. In fact, I think 3D-printing is synonymous with the phrase ‘hand-made’ – unique, custom-designed, high quality and carefully crafted. Who knows, 3D printing may herald the end of some traditional skills.

StarfishAnother fascinating feature of 3D-printing is its ability to produce or mimic things we find difficult. An example is the shell of a starfish.

Echinoderm sea creatures such as brittle stars have ordered rounded structures on their bodies that work as lenses to gather light into their rudimentary eyes. Under the microscope, the shell looks like little hot air balloons that are rising from the surface.

Continue reading ‘Hand-made’ pills inspired by a starfish (Day 153)

Innovation for water for life (Day 152)

Arid groundThe World Health Organisation’s (WHO) prediction that over two thirds of the world’s population will face living with severe water shortages by 2050 is daunting.

The combination of population growth, climate change and dwindling resources make this a complex problem.

As someone who lives in the UK, this is something that has not really affected us. There have been summers when the water companies impose bans on using hose pipes to water gardens and wash cars. It makes the news headlines and interrupts daily lives, but a dirty car is nothing compared to the problems experienced elsewhere.

In other areas of the world, water scarcity is a daily reality – it’s not just areas of famine hit Africa, but the Middle East and Singapore too. We will all have to address this challenge, in our homes and in the industries that we work in.

Continue reading Innovation for water for life (Day 152)

Plastic waste and oceans of opportunity (Day 151)

Beach garbage

I’ve been travelling extensively over recent weeks in Australia, Malaysia and Singapore.

Like many people, I use online news media to keep in touch with what is going on at home and around the world.

Scanning the UK news headlines earlier this week there was lots of stories of interest to chemical engineers; fires at power stations, new bills to allow the use of untested drugs, the introduction of charges for plastic carrier bags; and the growing Ebola problem.

Continue reading Plastic waste and oceans of opportunity (Day 151)

A profession under pressure? (Day 150)

Welcome to Day 150 of my IChemE presidency.

A thought-provoking report was published yesterday by the Royal Academy of Engineering called The Universe of Engineering – a call to action.

The report is a joint effort by the professional engineering institutions (PEIs), which represent the 450,000 professional engineers in the UK.

Time to adaptThe views of chemical engineers were represented on the steering group by my presidential predecessor, Judith Hackitt CBE.

On word, in particular, in the report caught my attention – ‘adapt’.

Dame Sue Ion DBE, chair of the working group that produced the report, said: “As engineers underpin an increasing number of different parts of the economy and society, the engineering community and professional engineering institutions must adapt to represent and support those in both traditional and non-traditional engineering roles.

“The engineering profession now has a critical opportunity to identify and put into place a framework for the new model of engineering, with its increasing inter-disciplinarity and pervasive reach.”

Continue reading A profession under pressure? (Day 150)

Funding for life (Day 147)

It shouldn’t surprise anyone when I say that some of the most successful nations and organisations in the world are the ones that invest heavily in research. It is a way to fuel growth, improve competitiveness, efficiency, quality of life and much more.

R&D Spend
Research and development expenditure (% of GDP) 2009-2013. Source: The World Bank. Click to visit website and enlarge.

Some of the latest data from The World Bank shows who are the biggest researchers, as a percentage of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

There are some surprises, but in general the biggest spenders are in Europe and North America. The top 20 includes Israel (1st), Finland (2nd), Sweden (3rd), Denmark (4th), Germany (5th), Austria (6th), Slovenia (7th), United States (8th), France (9th), Belgium (10th), Estonia (11th), Netherlands (12th), Singapore (13th), China (14th), Czech Republic (15th), Canada (16th), Ireland (17th), United Kingdom (18th), Norway (19th) and Portugal (20th).

Continue reading Funding for life (Day 147)

Minted into IChemE history (Day 146)

IChemE Logo - advancing chemical engineering worldwide

‘Advancing chemical engineering worldwide’ is a phrase you may be aware of. It’s the reason why IChemE exists and it has pride of place next to our logo.

The way we advance chemical engineering is largely due to the energy, expertise and enthusiasm of our 40,000 plus members. They are the ‘brains’ behind our success, and the same could be said of any professional body.

And how IChemE recognises the achievements of individuals who have really pushed the ‘envelope’ and boundaries of the profession is very important to us.

It’s the reason why we manage and grant over 25 medals and prizes in any given year (not including the many other awards ceremonies and accolades we co-ordinate).

IChemE’s medals and prizes offer a celebratory win-win. They are named after some incredible chemical engineers and it means we don’t forget their contribution. They also celebrate the achievements of the present – to advance chemical engineering worldwide.

Continue reading Minted into IChemE history (Day 146)

Italy’s commitment to a biofuelled future (Day 145)

Refinery plant for ethanol biofuelBiofuel – it’s a source of energy that can produce very different views in conversation. The debates in IChemE circles can get very lively, especially about the impact of biofuels; both in their production and their use.

There are concerns, but biofuels are likely to continue to play a part in our transport fuel strategy. In particular, second generation (also known as advanced) biofuels.

Here in the UK, the Department for Transport had a consultation on advanced fuels this year. IChemE worked with other professional engineering institutions (PEIs) through Engineering the Future to contribute.

Continue reading Italy’s commitment to a biofuelled future (Day 145)

Energy saving no longer an option for business (Day 144)

Sea of bureaucracy‘Red tape’ is always a hot topic in business and political circles. Governments talk about it and set targets in their manifesto pledges to win votes. Big business spends a lot of time and money lobbying to avoid it. Regulators spend their time trying to impose it (and remove it).

The issue of red tape can lead to some strange and unusual headlines. Recently, apparent ‘red tape’ came under the spotlight in the news in relation to a European Union directive on vacuum cleaners. Sadly, the headlines missed the point.

Some regulations and legislation, however painful to business, are necessary and show the right leadership.

The EU’s Energy Efficiency Directive (EED) is one that attempts to show the way forward.

Continue reading Energy saving no longer an option for business (Day 144)

Relief for brain injuries (Day 142)

Professional sportsmen and women are well aware of the dangers they face when they put their bodies on the line for the sports they love and excel at.

Surface of brainOf course, most are well rewarded, but the risks can be high. One type of injury that causes alarm is head injuries.

Contact sports like boxing and rugby often result in concussions leading to mandatory and forced absences for several weeks – and sometimes months for repeated concussions – before they can return to the sport.

Continue reading Relief for brain injuries (Day 142)

One small step for CCS; one giant leap for the Earth (Day 141)

Big stepCarbon capture and storage (CCS) is something close to my heart. I, and many colleagues at Imperial College Centre for Carbon Capture and Storage (IC4S) have been working on this for a long time.

With the amount of discussion about it, people may be forgiven for thinking it’s already happening. There is progress and technology and projects are coming online. However, it’s still in its infancy and we’ve only just reached a vital milestone.

It’s been a long time coming, but at the start of October, the world’s first commercial-scale carbon capture and storage plant has come online and started operating in Canada.

Continue reading One small step for CCS; one giant leap for the Earth (Day 141)

Honesty and integrity (Day 139)

Whistleblowing is a term that causes concern for business, governments and individuals. It can have severe legal and corporate implications. It undoubtedly affects the future careers of the individuals involved. It also requires courage.

Credit: Gil C |

In some ways it doesn’t help that there is a media obsession with high profile cases like WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, as well as the case of Edward Snowden, who exposed global surveillance programmes.

Neither case encourages the important role whistleblowing can play. In some sectors, like health, greater attempts are being made to encourage whistleblowing.

In our profession, whistleblowing is especially relevant to lapses in process safety and standards.

Continue reading Honesty and integrity (Day 139)

Chemical engineering’s film stars (Day 137)

London skyline
London’s evolving skyline

I was casting an eye over the evolving sky-scrape of London recently and marveled at some of the new architecture and buildings which have appeared like the Shard, the Gherkin and the Cheesegrater.

The UK is not renowned for its tall buildings, but the success of the UK’s capital and growing population (which is forecast to make it the most populous country in the European Union over the next few decades), has led to a bit of vertical thinking.

Of course, these buildings are the result of some fantastic engineering and there for everyone to enjoy – on a functional and aesthetic level.

One of the [minor] frustrations of being a chemical engineer is that not everything we do is so self-evident. In fact, some of us operate at levels no one can see, but our efforts influence some of our biggest man-made objects – and keep us safe.

Continue reading Chemical engineering’s film stars (Day 137)

‘Injecting’ from the inside (Day 136)

Most of our prescription medicines are administered orally or by injection. As a patient, the general preference is to receive medicine orally in pill or ‘syrup’ format. Indeed a phobia or fear of needles is common and with billions of injections given each year that’s a lot of nervous patients.

Injections pose other challenges too for patients and medical professionals. There is always a risk of infection caused by piercing the skin, especially from contaminated needles, and medical professionals need to be wary of ‘stick’ injuries.

But sometimes injections are unavoidable. Drugs made from large proteins can be broken down in the stomach before they can take effect. But what if there was a way to use the powerful acids in our stomachs to deliver an injection in the form of a pill – from the inside?

It seems implausible, but that’s what researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Massachusetts General Hospital have managed to do.

Microneedle pill
A schematic drawing of a microneedle pill with hollow needles. When the pill reaches the desired location in the digestive tract, the pH-sensitive coating surrounding the capsule dissolves, allowing the drug to be released through the microneedles. Image: Christine Daniloff/MIT, based on images by Carol Schoellhammer and Giovanni Traverso

Continue reading ‘Injecting’ from the inside (Day 136)

Meeting our Canadian friends and the grand challenges (Day 135)

Canadian flagIt is now over five years since one of my presidential predecessors, Ian Shott, signed an agreement with the Canadian Society for Chemical Engineering (CSChE) to explore a closer relationship between the two organisations.

At the time, Ian said: “Global challenges require global solutions and chemical engineers must work together across national boundaries in order to tackle pressing issues such as energy security, sustainable food production and the transition to a low carbon economy.

“This agreement will enable us to work together on collaborative projects that will highlight the role of the chemical engineer in delivering sustainable solutions.”

These issues, and our commitment to our Canadian friends, are still relevant today and IChemE, in the form of our director of policy – Andy Furlong – will be attending the 64th Canadian Chemical Engineering Conference in Niagara Falls on between 19-22 October 2014.

Continue reading Meeting our Canadian friends and the grand challenges (Day 135)