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.

WikiLeaks
Credit: Gil C | Shutterstock.com

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)

The Zebrafish solution (Day 133)

ZebrafishIf you’ve ever had a tropical aquarium there’s a good chance you’ll have owned and been delighted by the vibrant colours of a darting Zebrafish.

What you may not know is that the Zebrafish has become a firm favourite of the research community. One reason for this is that Zebrafish embryos are completely transparent making them ideally suited for studying developmental processes as they occur.

As a general introduction to why Zebrafish are so attractive to the science community, take a look at this YouTube video produced by University College London (UCL).

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Continue reading The Zebrafish solution (Day 133)

The original natural gas – poo power (Day 131)

Pig
Pig waste is powering 700 homes and helping to reduce landfill waste by 18,000 tonnes each year in Leicestershire, UK.

It was around this time last year that one of the big winners at the IChemE Global Awards 2013 – PROjEN – were collecting the Bioprocessing Award for their technology used to convert pig waste into energy.

The pig waste, combined with other food waste, was being used to produce biogas capable of generating the equivalent of around 1.2MW of electricity.

The electricity was exported into the local energy grid in Leicestershire, UK, to power an estimated 700 homes and reduce landfill waste by 18,000 tonnes each year.

In the UK, people outnumber pigs by more than ten to one, so one has to ask the question – ‘Can human poo be used in a similar way to provide a sustainable source of energy?’.

Continue reading The original natural gas – poo power (Day 131)

‘School report’ on saving the planet (Day 130)

Barack Obama and Ban Ki-moon - Frederic Legrand - Shutterstock.com
Barack Obama and Ban Ki-moon. Photo credit: Frederic Legrand – Shutterstock.com

Earlier this year, I went on record as saying that: ‘We are sleep-walking into a catastrophic climate change future’.

It was a statement I made in response to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report: Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability.

My perception was that ‘short-term energy policies and ‘political fiddling’ were failing to provide the solutions needed – and fast enough’.

With these thoughts in mind, I was very interested in the outcomes of the United Nation’s Climate Change Summit 2014 held last week. Further down, I’ve ‘graded’ the summit in the form of a school report.

Continue reading ‘School report’ on saving the planet (Day 130)

The threat of energy paralysis (Day 128)

LightbulbThere has been a great deal of reflection over the past few weeks about the Scottish Independence Referendum.

With 97 per cent of the electorate in Scotland registering to vote, and an eventual turnout of 85 per cent, it was a triumph for democracy and public engagement.

At the same time, it was a major wake-up call to many politicians who have rarely experienced the huge level of interest in their ‘day jobs’. In fact, arguably, many politicians were shown how to do their jobs better.

Some ‘leaders’ even tried to side-track the politicians, by building websites using independent assessments from leading experts around the world. Continue reading The threat of energy paralysis (Day 128)

Financing the quest for endless energy (Day 127)

Hello and welcome to today’s Chemeng365 blog. I’m currently enjoying meeting many chemical engineers in some of IChemE’s membership hot-spots in the Asia Pacific and Australasia regions.

Having just enjoyed a successful Chemeca 14 conference in Perth, Australia, I thought I’d keep the Australia theme going with an interesting hydrogen energy story from New South Wales.

Merlin - benefits of hydrogen
Graphic courtesy of MERLin

You may have spotted a blog recently about the Hy-cycle – a bicycle powered by a hydrogen fuel cell.

It’s just one of the interesting projects coming out of Australia at the moment attempting to develop hydrogen as a source of clean energy.

Some of the work is being driven by a research group called MERLin, which is based at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia.

Continue reading Financing the quest for endless energy (Day 127)

One foot in the toy box (Day 126)

Modular fluidic and instrumentation components
Modular fluidic and instrumentation components (MFICs, pronounced “em-fix”) developed by researchers at USC Viterbi

In my daily blog, I’ve talked frequently about the need for chemical engineers to operate in multi-disciplinary teams. Today’s blog – about an innovation in 3-D microfluidic systems – illustrates this point once again.

The idea for a new type of 3-D microfluidic system, developed by USC Viterbi School of Engineering, has great similarities with a toy box favourite – Lego, which as boys and girls know, is a fun and flexible system that can be used to build (and deconstruct) just about anything.

Continue reading One foot in the toy box (Day 126)

Electronics from the inside (Day 125)

Circuit boardWhat does a two hundred year old printing process, a mobile phone and chemical engineering have in common?

At first glance not a lot, but there is an interesting story to tell to illustrate why chemical engineering matters so much in today’s world.

Firstly, let’s head back to the 1790s when a printing process called lithography was discovered. Encyclopaedia Britannica describe lithography as ‘planographic printing process that makes use of the immiscibility of grease and water’.

Continue reading Electronics from the inside (Day 125)

What a waste (Day 124)

Green recycling binA few years ago the ‘waste’ business was estimated to be worth around GBP 272 billion (EUR 300 billion Euros or USD 410 billion).

The study also estimated that the world was producing at least four billion metric tons of waste a year – equivalent to world production of grain and steel combined.

These figures didn’t include construction, mining, agricultural and forestry wastes – suggesting that the real figure is much larger.

They are huge numbers and will grow as our population increases and we get better at recycling and managing our waste.

Continue reading What a waste (Day 124)

Healing help for spinal injuries (Day 122)

Spinal injectionWorking as part of a multi-disciplinary team is a common feature of the modern chemical engineer.

One of the latest projects I’ve come across involves chemical engineers working alongside a neurosurgeon, materials scientist, biologist, and molecular physiologist.

One of the chemical engineers is a specialist in polymers called Andrew Spakowitz, an associate professor of chemical engineering [and much more], at Stanford University.

Continue reading Healing help for spinal injuries (Day 122)

Café culture (Day 121)

If I’ve said it once, I’ve repeated it many times – communication is key. At this time of year, there are hundreds of young, enthusiastic students leaving home, going to university to study chemical engineering. They’ve made a big step in a direction that has many opportunities.

In the first few weeks of university they will meet many new people, many of them studying different subjects. One of the first questions asked in these new meetings is “what are you studying?” – and in response to the answer “chemical engineering”, there will be a lot of people asking – “what’s that?”.

As I head to Australia for the Chemeca 2014 conference it reminded me again, that a big challenge is explaining what we do and how it makes a difference.

Cafe Culture

While having a drink, I thought about Café Scientifique – where anyone with an interest in science and technology can meet to listen, discuss and debate issues.

All it costs you is the price of a drink (tea, coffee or a glass of wine).

There are now local café’s across six continents, offering opportunities to talk about relevant issues.

Continue reading Café culture (Day 121)

Just horsing around (Day 120)

Horse race
Horse fungus may help produce biofuel. Photo credit – Dziurek | Shutterstock.com

You may have noticed that the IChemE Global Award finals are just around the corner.

It’s an anxious wait for the 70 or so shortlisted finalists until 6 November 2014. However, I hope to share with you some of their work and achievements in the coming weeks on this blog.

Some of you may have noticed that this year’s venue is Cheltenham Racecourse, Gloucestershire, UK.

They’ve been racing at Cheltenham since 1815 and today attracts huge crowds from all over the world for events like the Cheltenham Festival. It also has some fantastic facilities, which is why we’ll be there on 6 November with 500 guests.

But today’s blog illustrates that the ubiquitous chemical engineer operates even in the equine world – a chemical engineer has found fungi in the intestinal tracts and faeces of horses which could help produce biofuels from non-food plants.

Continue reading Just horsing around (Day 120)

A crystal anniversary (Day 119)

CrystallographyThis year – 2014 – is the International Year of Crystallography.

The year-long event commemorates the centennial of X-ray diffraction, which allowed the detailed study of crystalline material.

It is also the 400th anniversary of Kepler’s observation in 1611 of the symmetrical form of ice crystals, which began the wider study of the role of symmetry in matter.

You won’t be surprised to hear that I’m a great supporter of campaigns to raise the profile of science and engineering, and I would like to congratulate the lead sponsor of the campaign – the International Union of Crystallography (IUCr) – and their lead partner – UNESCO.

Continue reading A crystal anniversary (Day 119)

Economics, memory loss and climate change (Day 118)

Memory lossIf you’ve encountered the concept of organisational memory loss, you’ll know how frustrating and costly it can be.

We often use the concept in relation to process safety when we fail to learn the lessons of the past to catastrophic effect.

A few days ago I wrote a blog called No time to wait in relation to climate change.

I thought I’d return again quickly to the same topic to show how the knowledge, lessons and messages from the past can easily slip away into inaction – especially as the United Nation’s Climate Change Summit is being held tomorrow in New York.

Continue reading Economics, memory loss and climate change (Day 118)

The affordable kidney (Day 117)

Human kidneysIf ever you try to explain what a chemical engineer does, comparing it to human anatomy may not be your first choice. But there are some useful analogies, for instance the kidney.

The main role of the kidneys is to filter waste products from the blood and convert them to urine. If the kidneys lose this ability, waste products can build up, which is potentially dangerous and can be life threatening.

It’s a principle used widely by chemical engineers to manage all kinds of human and industrial waste.

I think the relationship between chemical engineers and human anatomy is set to become more common over the next few years, and will improve the quality of life for millions of people.

Continue reading The affordable kidney (Day 117)

No time to wait (Day 116)

Coal Power StationWhether we like it or not, energy from fossil fuels is going to be needed for around another two generations.

It is not a comforting thought to think that our descendants born in 30 or 40 years time may be left with the legacy of not acting now to mitigate the effects of climate change.

We need to press ahead with building capacity for renewable energy. There’s also no time to waste to implement carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology for the hundreds of fossil fuel power stations that will still need to be constructed in the meantime. Without CCS, it is unlikely we’ll get anywhere near the Kyoto targets.

Continue reading No time to wait (Day 116)

X-Ray Specification (Day 115)

Quality assuranceFew organisations in the process industries can succeed without some form of quality assurance.

If you work in the food and pharmaceuticals industries, where people directly consume our products, there are serious and very public consequences of failing to keep standards high.

The issue of how to test – rapidly – specific ‘ingredients’ used in a process has attracted the attention of the Technical University of Denmark (DTU).

Continue reading X-Ray Specification (Day 115)

The environmentally-friendly roof (Day 113)

Grass roofed buildingI’ve always been intrigued by buildings with ‘living’ or ‘green roofs’. It’s easy to forget they are not a modern invention. Places like Skara Brae Prehistoric Village in Scotland date back more than 5,000 years and have distinctive roofs using the benefits provided by nature.

Green roofs today are sold on the back of their environmental and economic benefits such as insulation and cooling properties, ability to significantly reduce rainwater run-off from roofs, and their value in promoting biodiversity and habitat in built-up areas. They look very impressive and distinctive too.

I think they are a useful reminder that buildings need to connect more with their environment for good reasons like reducing heating costs and greenhouse gas emissions. In the UK, around 13 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions come from the residential sector.

Continue reading The environmentally-friendly roof (Day 113)

Building public confidence in fracking (Day 112)

Fracking demonstration
Balcombe, UK, fracking demonstration (Image – Randi Sokoloff – Shutterstock.com)

A few weeks ago, I provided some information to the media in relation to a fracking ‘scare story’. As I always do in these situations, I look at the evidence and provide a factual and objective assessment. As chemical engineers that’s all we can ever do.

Realistically, concerns over fracking are unlikely to disappear. There will always be sceptics, but they have an absolute right to be heard. It’s up to us to listen carefully and respond to these concerns – consistently and in language that everyone understands.

Continue reading Building public confidence in fracking (Day 112)

Training the microbe (Day 111)

BacteriaLots of IChemE Members will be aware of the many special interest groups established to help advance the chemical engineering profession and its many branches.

One of the most active groups is IChemE’s Biochemical Engineering Special Interest Groups. Sharing best practice, supporting young professionals and generally promoting the discipline are all part of their work, which includes events on topics like synthetic biology and multi-disciplinary meetings for young researchers.

Continue reading Training the microbe (Day 111)

Get on your hydrogen bike (Day 109)

Hy-cycle
UNSW’s Hy-cycle powered by a hydrogen fuel cell.

Some stories in the world of chemical engineering have stand-out lines that really grab my attention.

This week I came across an interesting story from Australia about a team of chemical engineers that have built a bicycle powered by a hydrogen fuel cell.

In itself this is a great achievement, but it was a quote from associate professor Kondo-Francois Aguey-Zinsou, who works in the chemical engineering department at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), that really caught my attention.

Continue reading Get on your hydrogen bike (Day 109)

When 99.9 per cent just isn’t good enough (Day 108)

99.9%Have you ever wondered why we make mistakes? Well, according to a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, called Joseph T Hallinan, he thinks ‘humans are pre-programmed to make blunders’. He’s even written a book about it called ‘Why We Make Mistakes’.

Hallinan is a former Wall Street Journal reporter who began to shape his theory while researching a story on anaesthetists.

Hallinan discovered they had a mixed safety record, but noted their safety record was vastly improved by a simple change to their equipment that cancelled out human error. The change was the introduction of a valve that could only turn one way to deliver anaesthetic to a patient.

Continue reading When 99.9 per cent just isn’t good enough (Day 108)

What’s the best vote for Scotland’s Oil and Gas industry? (Day 106)

Scottish Independence Ballet BoxThere’s one thing that the Queen and IChemE have in common – they (we) are both neutral on Scottish Independence.

However, there are lots of individuals in the chemical and process industries that have chosen to support one or other of the two campaigns – Better Together or Yes Scotland.

One of the latest opinion polls by YouGov from 6 September shows just how tight the vote will be on 18 September: The ‘Yes to Independence’ group has a slight edge at 51 per cent, with 49 per cent stating ‘No’. According to YouGov, it’s a ‘statistical dead heat’ with just days to go.

Continue reading What’s the best vote for Scotland’s Oil and Gas industry? (Day 106)

Jet-fuelled by landfill waste (Day 104)

Jet AirplaneIf you get time to study some of the statistics quoted by the aviation industry they are remarkable. Over 65 billion passengers carried over the last century; 58 million people employed; $6.4 trillion of cargo carried each year and around 60 million flying hours.

Continue reading Jet-fuelled by landfill waste (Day 104)

What the public really think about chemical engineers… (Day 103)

Crowd of peopleI recently came across the Ipsos MORI 2014 Public Attitudes to Science study which focuses on public perceptions in the UK to science and engineering.

The survey did not test scientific knowledge but instead examined the social connections between people and science. This approach is useful as it offers an insight into how a person will respond to a specific issue, for example fracking.

Continue reading What the public really think about chemical engineers… (Day 103)

The nano-police (Day 102)

Geoffrey Bothun
Geoffrey Bothun – chemical engineer looking at the implications of nanotechnology

In the UK, we’ve been tracking public attitudes to science since 1998.

Some of the central questions in the Public Attitudes to Science survey, by ipsos MORI, is to measure opinions towards ‘pace of change’, how much science is ‘valued’ and ‘trust’.

I’ll be exploring the results of the 2014 survey in more detail in tomorrow’s blog, but today I wanted to look at the issue of trust in relation to nanotechnology.

Some fields of science are more difficult to ‘police’ than others. This is certainly the case for nanotechnology – the creation of materials or processes at the nano-scale – which has attracted concerns about environmental risks that may not become apparent until decades later.

Continue reading The nano-police (Day 102)