How inventive are chemical engineers and how could you measure their inventiveness? It’s a bit of a rhetorical question and one that probably doesn’t need an answer, but it did cross my mind the other day when I received an email from IChemE promoting a Webinar about microalga Dunaliella by the University of Greenwich in the UK.
The University are leading a €10m international project, called the ‘D-Factory,’ to build a biorefinery to develop the microalga Dunaliella as a sustainable raw material and turn every part of the alga into something useful.
In fact, they are looking at potential products including food, pharmaceuticals, plastic and fuel. This is unlikely to be a surprise to anyone who is part of the chemical engineering ‘family’, but probably something relatively unknown in the wider world.
If you are familiar with political life in the UK, you’ll know that when the House of Commons is sitting, you are allowed access to the central lobby and can request to see your local Member of Parliament (MP).
They may not always be there, but it can be quite an effective way to lobby UK politicians and is one of the benefits of living in a democracy.
Since 1970 music lovers have descended on a small village called Pilton near Glastonbury in the South West of England to enjoy one of the world’s best music festivals. This year’s festival is already underway with around 200,000 people attending the sell-out event.
For the organisers it’s an immense logistical undertaking, especially the volume of waste created over the five day festival. And one type of waste is particularly challenging – toilet waste.
The festival has around 5,000 toilets onsite, but I wonder how many people, sitting, listening to the music, realise that chemical engineering – albeit in very basic form – is helping to control odours and eventually recycle their human waste into compost?
With some exceptions, many countries, including the UK, have just been through the worst recession ever. Even now, nations have still to return to 2008 economic output levels.
If you managed to survive the last six years, you’re likely to be leaner and more efficient, but still cautious. As economists say – confidence is the magical word to drive investment, jobs and expansion.
There is always a good and lively debate about the definition of chemical engineering. Not in technical and academic terms, but in words that most people can understand and relate to. At the moment it often feels like a debate without end and probably needs marketers to help tease out the values, words, benefits and phrases that encapsulate our profession.
So does it matter if we can’t explain our profession simply and collectively, nor have a simple set of images that bind us all together? Romantically, most chemical engineers would answer yes to this question.
In practice too it is an awkward situation to be in – the lack of clarity and subsequent communication problems result in misunderstanding, poor awareness and, most importantly, less value attached to the profession. If nothing else this is a substantial barrier to higher education, skills and recruitment.
Seawater covers around 70 per cent of the Earth’s surface and accounts for 97 per cent of the planet’s water. Although a great source of food and means of travel, in some ways this ubiquitous resource is under-used, especially in relation to its energy potential.
Of course renewable wave energy is attracting lots of interest at the moment. But a few weeks ago, a story caught my eye about a team at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), who have been looking at seawater as a means to power their warships and planes.
Chemical engineers work in some of the most image-conscious organisations where reputations are hard-won and easily lost. In all likelihood you’ll have a team of people somewhere carefully monitoring social media, news outlets, what your customers are saying and what the future holds in terms of legislation, trends and policy changes.
It’s also fair to assume that chemical engineers don’t always have the best of images. For one, people generally don’t know what we do. And when they do, it’s often associated with negative images and disasters. Often these images and events are ingrained into the public consciousness like Piper Alpha or Bhopal.
Improvements in process safety education should never stand still, so it was good to hear from one of IChemE’s members based in the US this week, Deborah Grubbe, who contacted me about the development of some new technical software called The PSM eBook.
The eBook was commissioned by the chemical engineering team at Purdue University in the US. They decided to introduce process safety management more formally into the undergraduate curriculum.
Earlier this year, IChemE was disappointed by the decision of the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) to remove the examination and grading of practicals from science A levels.
A levels and AS qualifications in England are currently assessed using a combination of written examinations – marked by independent exam boards – plus written and other assessments, such as laboratory tasks, marked by teachers.
The media (and generally readers) love lists of things. Easily digestible and readable, they are a great way to start debate and communicate in a few words. A quick Google will show you just how many top ten lists there.
Anyway, throughout my presidency I thought I’d use this handy technique in my blogs to get your views and comments – beginning with ten reasons to become a chemical engineer. In no particular order, my top ten are:
Patrons, envoys, role models, ambassadors, champions. Call them what you want, but symbolic leaders are valuable in all walks of life. Should professions be any different? And have you ever considered who are the champions for the chemical engineering profession?
A few years ago tce magazine wrote a fantastic series of articles about chemical engineers who changed the world. Starting with pioneers like Johann Glauber in the 1600s, tce gradually worked their way through people like George E Davis, Fritz Haber & Carl Bosch, Victor Mills, Trevor Kletz and Yoshio Nishi.
There are lots of industries where protective clothing is a necessity. Although technology makes a contribution and advancements have been made, such Kevlar, by and large, some of the protection and the technology used seems to be stuck in a bygone era.
Chain mail is still used as protection in meat processing factories. Many boots still have metal toe caps. Plastic hard hats have been around for over 60 years. Surgical gloves are made from simple polymers… or are they?
This weekend is the Austrian Formula One Grand Prix. If you’re a fan of the sport you’ll know that tyres (and their lack of grip), drivers (what’s more important – the car or the driver) and aerodynamics (who’s got the most downforce) often dominate the pre-race conversation.
They may not call themselves ‘chemical engineers’, but ‘process engineers’, ‘product engineers’, ‘process technologists’ [and a multitude of other job descriptions] are busily working away in the food industry to make the brands we know and love.
Producing tasty, safe, consistent, attractive, stable and value-for-money foods on a large scale is a remarkable achievement. Without those product values and others, glitzy marketing will always fail.
I’m sure, like me, you meet and work with a great deal of people. But time never stands still and rarely do people. However, writing my blog over these first few weeks has made me realise the power of social media to connect and re-connect with people.
It’s also a chance to find out how organisations like IChemE have influenced the life and careers of its members, and many other people we try to help.
It’s generally well-known that relationships and how we work with our partners and stakeholders is important in the modern business world. Indeed, many organisations in the chemical and process industries have large PR machines and lobbies to represent their interests.
Of course, at IChemE, we do the same, but in a much smaller way. And as president of the Institution of Chemical Engineers it is my pleasure and privilege to represent the profession and meet a great range of people nearly every day.
In the UK, we’ve just celebrated National Volunteers Week. It’s an annual celebration of the effort and dedication of millions of people who provide their time and expertise to help others and a whole host of causes.
It’s also a chance for organisations like IChemE to simply say ‘thank you’ to the thousands of chemical engineers that have, and are continuing to help advance chemical engineering worldwide.
I think engineers and voluntary work are natural partners. And when those volunteers are young engineers special things can happen.
Have you ever considered how much technology contributes to sporting success? Is it possible to succeed without the latest piece of kit to boost your talent? Are there any sports which don’t benefit from technology in some shape or form? Probably not.
I remember a few years ago that Speedo’s swimsuits were banned for the London 2012 Olympics. The polyurethane bodysuits that contributed to an astonishing number of swimming world records over the previous 18 months.
I’m not too sure how many scientists collaborate with poets, but that’s just what’s happened in Sheffield, UK.
Simon Armitage, Professor of Poetry at the University, and Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Science Professor Tony Ryan, have created a catalytic poem (I think we can safely say this is a world’s first… but you never know).
So what is a catalytic poem? Well, between the pair of them, they’ve produced a huge poster of the poem called ‘In Praise of Air’. The poster material contains a formula invented at the University of Sheffield which is capable of purifying its surroundings.
There is potential in most things, even the waste that disappears down the toilet bowl.
But along with the waste, there’s the water we use to flush it away. Before water arrives in the toilet bowl it takes energy to process it. And once it disappears down the drains it takes more energy to re-process again. It’s something we pay for as part of our everyday utility bills.
Turning the potential of toilet water into a source of renewable energy, and a way to reduce bills, sounds like a good idea to me.
As a professor of energy engineering at Imperial College London I am often asked about the future. What we know for sure is that there is going to be major change with climate change, dwindling fossil fuels and an extra two billion people on the planet all playing their part in the various scenarios and possibilities.
There are other factors too, but it’s always interesting to look into the crystal ball through the eyes of some of the various stakeholders in the chemical and process industries.
Do you find it hard to explain what you do and why it’s important? It’s a common problem and even the best communicators struggle to convey the science, complexity, scale and even the products we make – industrial or for consumers.
However, it was great to see a project this week in Malaysia where students from the Universiti Teknologi Malaysia took a mobile mini biodiesel reactor into the streets to help the general public’s understanding of biodiesel. It’s the type of initiative that fits perfectly with the ChemEng365 campaign.
I was born in Stoke-on-Trent in the 1940s where my father worked for Podmore and Sons, which made and processed raw materials like clays and glazes for the pottery industry.
My father’s connection to Podmore and Sons opened a door to some summer vacation work and it became my first exposure to both industrial chemistry and engineering. The rest is history.
Today, many people are undoubtedly attracted by the excellent pay, travel and simple job satisfaction from working in some of the fascinating and important industries which form the building blocks of the modern world.
Most of my blog entries are about celebrating the achievements of chemical engineers now. But 6 June 2014 marks the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, when British, US and Canadian forces invaded the coast of Northern France in Normandy. It was the biggest amphibious assault in military history.
It was also a point in history when chemical engineers made a major contribution, which could easily be forgotten, that we should remember with pride.
The landings were the first stage of Operation Overlord – the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe – and were intended to bring World War Two to an end.
An international collaboration of researchers in Germany, Netherlands and the US have used chemical engineering principles to track single molecules inside living cells with carbon nanotubes.
Chemical engineers from Rice University and biophysicists from Georg-August Universität Göttingen and VU University Amsterdam found that cells stir their interiors using the same motor proteins that serve in muscle contraction. The study, which sheds new light on biological transport mechanisms in cells, was published in Science.
I had an interesting message from IChemE member and MediaEnvoy Keith Plumb overnight.
It covers a sensitive and sometimes controversial issue – the growth of human population – but he also points out the power of individuals to make a difference.
Using Keith’s words he says: “The elephant in the room with respect to climate change is the growth of the human population. I used to think that chemical engineers could do little until I read an article about a man in India who developed a simple machine for making sanitary towels.”
Some estimates suggest around a billion scrap tyres are produced every year.
Many countries have legislation controlling their disposal and there are several ways they can be re-cycled, such as for mats and ‘soft’ protective flooring in children’s play grounds. They even have potential as a source of energy.
But they remain problematic due to their sheer volume.