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)

A new approach to bone injuries (Day 101)

X ray of human bodyTypically, we all have 206 bones in our body by the time we are adults. It’s not surprising that we break them every now and again.

Collarbones, arms, wrists, hips and ankles are parts of the body most at risk of breakage.

I always think the body is remarkable in how it can heal itself. In children, bones can repair in as little as three weeks.

But sometimes, nature needs a little help, especially if the defect is so severe that a normal approach won’t work.

Now some clever chemical engineers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have devised a new implantable tissue scaffold coated with bone growth factors that are released slowly over a few weeks.

Continue reading A new approach to bone injuries (Day 101)

Window power (Day 99)

WindowIn theory, there’s enough light from the sun to provide all of the world’s energy needs. Clean, limitless and renewable it is a very attractive proposition.

Of course, it is not as simple as that. It doesn’t work at night and seasonality, atmospheric conditions and variable climate conditions (mostly clouds) mean it is less viable in some parts of the world.

There are other practical challenges too. Solar farms need to cover large surface areas to be commercially viable. This demand for space is also reflected for home-based solar power generation. Large solar panels are dotted on house roofs and buildings – not pretty and certainly not integrated into house design the way architects would prefer.

Continue reading Window power (Day 99)

Keeping an optical eye on mercury (Day 98)

Liquid MercuryThe dangers of mercury in food have been known for a long time, but it’s only recently that some regulatory bodies like the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have tightened their guidance.

In December 2012, EFSA updated its scientific advice on mercury in food.

EFSA established Tolerable Weekly Intakes (TWIs) for the main forms of mercury found in food: methylmercury and inorganic mercury.

Continue reading Keeping an optical eye on mercury (Day 98)

Gender’s not the only issue (Day 97)

Career keyhole
35 per cent of IChemE’s students across the world are women.

Like most of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, the chemical engineering profession can suffer from a lack of diversity.

The most common diversity angle is the gender balance issue. While there is plenty of room for improvement, we can be proud of the fact that around 35 per cent of IChemE’s global student members are women.

A closer look at IChemE’s membership data shows how the chemical engineering profession is thriving, from a gender perspective, in some countries.

Malaysia tops the list with women accounting for 49 per cent of chemical engineering student members. New Zealand (40 per cent), Australia (35 per cent) and Singapore (31 per cent) also post strong performances for gender balance.

Continue reading Gender’s not the only issue (Day 97)

Going green is here to stay (Day 95)

Sustainable DevelopmentWhen multinational companies commit to ‘going green’, you know the trend is here to stay. If legislation doesn’t catch you out, then consumers and customers will. It’s just a matter of time.

I think the business arguments for organisations to become more sustainable are clear: reduced waste and costs; greater efficiency; employee approval and loyalty; competitive edge; great PR; adding value to your brand; and even increases to the bottom line are some of the potential benefits on offer.

Continue reading Going green is here to stay (Day 95)

Scrubbing up nicely (Day 94)

Nobel Prize Chemistry 1995
Winners – Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1995 for their work to understand the impact of humans on our planet.

In 1974, a paper, published in Nature, identified the role of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in causing ozone depletion. This marked an important point in understanding the impact of human activity on our planet.

In recognition of this breakthrough in understanding, Professor Paul Crutzen, Professor F. Sherwood Rowland and Professor Mario Molina were awarded the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Professor Molina started his scientific career with a chemical engineering degree (1965) from the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico.

Continue reading Scrubbing up nicely (Day 94)

Add just a pinch of salt for longer battery life (Day 92)

Dead Batteries - Huguette Roe  Shutterstock dot com
‘Dendrites’ are a major cause of declining battery performance. Image courtesy of Huguette Roe | Shutterstock.com

One of the major considerations when making, and buying, modern consumer products is battery life. Cheaper products generally have short battery lives. You’ll pay considerably more for better performance, but even high specification smartphones barely last more than half a day according to a recent test.

Continue reading Add just a pinch of salt for longer battery life (Day 92)

Masters of the unusual job title (Day 91)

ChocolateThere was a great fun story in the media recently when Cambridge University announced they were looking for a ‘Doctor of Chocolate’.

Based in Cambridge University’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, the ‘project will investigate the factors which allow chocolate, which has a melting point close to that of the human body, to remain solid and retain qualities sought by consumers when it is stored and sold in warm climates.’

Continue reading Masters of the unusual job title (Day 91)

Espresso fuel (Day 89)

Cooking FatDiesel, petrol and battery power are familiar ways to power our transport. LPG and natural gas are other alternatives.

But there are other more obscure (and sometimes less practical ways) to power vehicles.

Air, waste cooking oil, waste vegetables, beer and spirits, chocolate, nappies (diapers), sawdust, nuts, styrofoam and other waste or co-products all have the potential to fuel cars.

In fact, finding ways to convert industrial co-products into biofuel always seems a sensible and sustainable way to re-use our raw materials – especially for high volume commodities like coffee.

Continue reading Espresso fuel (Day 89)

Inspired by nature (Day 87)

Sea Urchin
Sea Urchins have the ability to convert CO2 to calcium carbonate

Have you noticed how often nature inspires technological advancements? It’s something that chemical engineers are very adept at and have made a series of recent discoveries that have great potential.

Research by Newcastle University in the UK found that nickel nanoparticles on the exoskeletons of Sea Urchin larvae gave them the ability to convert CO2 to calcium carbonate. The finding has the potential to help mitigate climate change.

Continue reading Inspired by nature (Day 87)

It’s in our genes (Day 85)

DNAThe world of genetics is fascinating and there always seems an endless stream of findings and breakthroughs with the potential for predicting and treating health problems.

This month, research published in the New England Journal of Medicine indicated women with mutations in the PALB2 gene face a one in three chance of getting breast cancer by age 70.

A team at the Institute of Cancer Research, in London, have shown 14 separate genetic mutations can greatly increase the odds of aggressive prostate cancers and form the basis for genetic screening in a similar way to breast cancer in women.

Continue reading It’s in our genes (Day 85)

‘Little-game’ hunters (Day 84)

Most of us are familiar and fascinated with ‘big-game’ animals like rhinos, elephants and tigers. Thankfully, they are now protected animals and their numbers have stabilised, but remain perilously low. For instance only around 3,000 tigers remain the in the wild.

By contrast, there are tens of millions of species of bacteria living in the wild. But even these are hard to capture and some are just as elusive as a Siberian Tiger.

Panda
Pandas are not the only animals difficult to breed in captivity – ‘wild’ bacteria pose similar problems.

Continue reading ‘Little-game’ hunters (Day 84)

The zero water ambition (Day 83)

Factory waterWorldwide, industry accounts for 22 per cent of all water consumption. This figure is expected to rise to 24 per cent of total freshwater withdrawal in 2025.

Most industries are working to reduce their water usage and many companies have business targets to reduce water consumption. Some even have the ambition of running ‘zero water’ factories.

But what are ‘zero water’ factories and are they really achievable?

Continue reading The zero water ambition (Day 83)

A global ring of safety (Day 80)

Step by step, day by day, country by country, something special is happening in the world of process safety. In chemical engineering hubs around the world, process safety is being taken to new levels led by a network of IChemE members.

There are now nearly 70 chemical engineers enrolled or registered as Professional Process Safety Engineers based at strategic locations on five continents.

They are the vanguard and champions of a long-term IChemE initiative to improve safety and give greater recognition to one of the most important – if the not the most important – discipline in the chemical engineering profession.

Locations of Professional Process Safety Engineers
IChemE’s Professional Process Safety Engineers are now located on five continents

Continue reading A global ring of safety (Day 80)

Electronic bugging of the water variety (Day 79)

Water testing
Current water monitoring can be costly, time-consuming and require technical expertise.

Sharing new technology and developments, and making sure there is greater equality in its use across the world, requires political commitment.

But, arguably, making technological advancements that are affordable, especially for developing countries, is essential if it is to be deployed on a global scale.

So, I was really encouraged to read a story this week about something important to all of us – a new lower cost way of testing for water pollution and checking the quality of drinking water.

Continue reading Electronic bugging of the water variety (Day 79)

Making food last longer (Day 78)

Goats cheeseGlobalisation has created opportunities for many industries, but the growth of some fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) – especially fresh foods – continue to be limited by their relatively short shelf lives.

For some countries, like Australia, it places an unwelcome cap on their exporting potential and economic growth.

For nations with burgeoning populations, especially in South East Asia, the scope and volume of ‘fresh’ food imports can be constrained and place additional burdens on ‘home-grown’ food supplies.

Continue reading Making food last longer (Day 78)

The dichotomy of chemical engineering (Day 77)

John Fletcher Moulton, Baron Moulton, c.  1913
John Fletcher Moulton, Baron Moulton, circa 1913.

Throughout 2014 there have been various emotional and poignant days recording key events in the twentieth century’s two world wars.

As chemical engineers, I’m sure some of us look at these historical events in contrasting ways, especially when we consider our professional ‘forefathers’ were the architects of weapons production on a mass scale.

Conversely, the mass use of antibiotics considerably reduced the death toll in combat during World War Two.

That’s the dichotomy of chemical engineers – our inventiveness has the ability for destruction and immeasurable good.

Continue reading The dichotomy of chemical engineering (Day 77)