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
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.
Nuclear power provides approximately 11 per cent of the world’s energy. In the UK, nuclear power generation makes up 19 per cent of the energy landscape. The proportion is much higher in France, at 75 per cent.
However, there are still significant public concerns over the safety and environmental impacts of nuclear power, and the legacy issues of waste. These concerns mean there is often very little support for new nuclear power plants.
As we move to a low carbon future nuclear, new build will have to play an even bigger part in the energy strategies of many governments, because nuclear doesn’t emit carbon dioxide during power generation.
The COP21 talks in Paris came to a turning-point on Saturday, as an update to the draft agreement was released. Finance appears to be the over-riding issue as we settle in to the second week of the conference – but what about the solutions?
Did you know that more than half of the world’s annual carbon emissions could be prevented over the next 50 years by using sustainable bioenergy?
According to research by Pacala and Socolow, outlined by the IChemE Energy Centre, 25 billion tonnes of carbon emissions can be prevented from entering the atmosphere – simply by switching from fossil-based petroleum to bioethanol as our primary transportation fuel.
So why aren’t we using it already?
The raw materials used in bioenergy production – food crops like maize and sugarcane – come with a lot of associated challenges. Food crops are by no means guaranteed; a bad season could have a detrimental effect, particularly in developing countries who rely on their crops as a means of livelihood. Concerns about the economical implications for developing countries have already been raised in Paris – and could be a deal-breaker for alternative fuels like bioenergy.
The world’s population is expected to exceed nine billion by 2050. With this growth there will be an increasing demand for energy.
As it stands, fossil fuels provide more than 85 per cent of the world’s energy. And despite significant global efforts to shift to renewable energy generation, renewable sources only accounted for 2 per cent of the global energy supply in 2014.
It is therefore logical and reasonable to believe that fossil fuels will remain an indispensable part of the world’s energy landscape until at least the end of this century.
At COP21, representatives from over 190 countries will try to reach an agreement to limit global warming to the two degrees target, and this will involve stabilising atmospheric CO2 concentrations at a level of 450 parts per million (ppm).
So what does this mean? For fossil fuels, it means we need to decarbonise electricity production; and carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a readily deployable technology solution to do this.
The first is energy efficiency, a central part of ensuring we maximise the energy we produce to reduce both waste and harmful emissions.
The need to improve energy efficiency is perhaps one of the easiest topics to get a consensus on, and it will form an imperative part of an effective agreement at the Paris climate talks over the next week.
The numbers speak for themselves. The 2012 Global Energy Assessment revealed that 66 per cent of the energy produced today is wasted. For the chemical process industries and the chemical engineering sector, the implications of this statistic are huge.
This week saw the start of the 21st Conference of Parties, COP21. More than 190 countries and 150 global leaders have gathered in Paris, France, to discuss a new global agreement on climate change.
The United Nations (UN) event will host around 40,000 people and runs right through until the end of next week (11 December).
The future of the natural world, and the animals and plant life that call it home, depends on the outcome of this conference. If we don’t limit global warming to 2 degrees, the consequences will be catastrophic.
Whilst we cannot accurately predict the scale of any potential impacts now, what we do know for certain is that climate change is happening, and we have a responsibility to reduce any further damage.
Chemical engineers are part of the solution, and the IChemE Energy Centre has identified five priority areas where technology can be deployed now to help mitigate climate change.
Today we turn our attention to Shell – one of the six oil and gas ‘supermajors’ and an IChemE Gold Corporate Partner. Through oil and gas exploration, production, refinement and distribution, Shell makes it possible for us to heat our homes, fuel our cars and cook our food.
But what is it like to be a chemical engineer at one of the world’s most valuable companies?
Exciting, diverse, challenging – maybe all of the above? Check out our latest ChemEngProfiles videos to find out.
(1) You work on meaningful projects that affect various stakeholders, right from the start.
Carlyn Greenhalgh, a process improvement practitioner at Shell, loves the complexity of chemical engineering. She explains how she went from University, to working on a production site with her own unit. Her pilot plant is now being manufactured and sold worldwide.
Earlier this week, we launched the first in a new series of ChemEngProfiles video blogs. Our good friends at Syngenta started the ball rolling and you can check out their stories in ‘Five great reasons to be a chemical engineer at Syngenta‘. But it’s not only chemical engineers at Syngenta who want to share their passion for the profession and we’ve got lots more in the pipeline.
We’re all familiar with the big energy challenges confronting humanity 21st century. Chemical engineers are on the front line in the battle to deliver affordable, secure and sustainable energy supplies and IChemE members at BP are no exception.
But don’t take our word for it, check out these video clips from the boys and girls at one of the world’s leading international oil and gas companies.
(1) Protecting the planet by switching to biofuels
Aidan Hurley is a Chief process safety engineer at BP Alternative Energy. Here he’s talking about his work with biofuels and how, as a chemical engineer, he is developing solutions to the challenges associated with energy including climate change:
The ChemEng365 campaign concluded at the end of May when Geoff’s term as president ended. But of course, all the amazing chemical engineering research and innovation still goes on. So, it seems only fitting to give you a research round-up on all things chemical and process engineering for the month of June – just in case you missed anything!
Injectable hydrogel could help wounds heal more quickly
Day 362, four blogs to go. Four more opportunities to highlight chemical engineering in action.
In the Christian tradition, the four horsemen of the apocalypse are the harbingers of the end of the world.
Other faiths offer different views, but for the purposes of this blog post I’m taking a look at four big challenges that present a serious threat to life on earth: water scarcity; increasing energy demand; food security; and climate change. What are chemical engineers doing to tackle these issues and avert the apocalypse?
I have previously observed that we run the risk of sleep-walking towards climate catastrophe. But it’s more complicated than that. The water, energy, food and climate change challenges are interrelated.The former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government, Sir John Beddington, used the term Perfect Storm to describe this phenomenon arguing that climate change will intensify pressure on resources further, adding to the vulnerability of both ecosystems and people.
Chemical engineering can provide shelter from John’s ‘Perfect storm’. Here are some examples.
The carbon capture pilot plant is so big that it stretches over four floors of our building, right at its centre – which is pretty impressive for a university pilot plant and helps provide a sense of scale for the real thing.
The pilot plant provides our students with an opportunity to grapple with some of the practical challenges that they will encounter in industry. It certainly presents the opportunity to hone a few of the skills that might prove useful in the future.
If you are reading this in the UK – still home to around half of IChemE’s members – I’m sure you are aware that a General Election is taking place today.
IChemE is politically neutral and it adopts an independent position on issues that are viewed as partisan. However, the institution believes that political decisions should be evidence-based and supported by the strongest possible input from the engineering community. That’s why it’s important to engage with politicians and to express a view.
So for today’s blog post, I’ve asked IChemE CEO, Dr David Brown, to share his thoughts on the need for chemical engineers to influence policymakers, not only in the UK but around the world.
Pollsters are predicting that this UK general election will be one of the closest in living memory. In the latest edition of tce (May 2015) I set out my election wish-list for the new UK government covering areas such as education, immigration and climate change.
Whatever the outcome of the election, the government that emerges will undoubtedly have an impact on many areas of the UK economy that rely on chemical and process engineers.
That’s why we need to engage in debates on public policy issues.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that as many as 2.5 billion people around the world do not have access to adequate toilet facilities.
Poor sanitation results in contaminated drinking water and the spread of infectious diseases including Cholera and Dysentery, which cause severe diarrhoea, dehydration and if left untreated, death (see my blog, ‘Everyone should have a human right to water’).
Every year, around 1.5 million people – mostly children under five years old – die from diarrhoea. Drastic action is needed in order to make safe sanitation accessible to all.
At a first glance, some products only have one function. For example, the loose-fill packing peanuts that make shipping fragile items easier.
Packing peanuts normally end up in landfill sites where they remain intact for decades and as they’re difficult to breakdown, only around 10 per cent are recycled in the US.
So, researchers from Purdue University, US, did some clever thinking and found a way to convert packing peanuts into carbon electrodes that can outperform the conventional graphite electrodes found in lithium ion batteries.
It all started when Professor Vilas Pol, an associate professor of chemical engineering, and his postdoctoral researcher, Vinodkumar Etacheri, were unpacking boxes filled with instruments for Vilas’ new lab. After emptying the boxes, they had great new lab full of instruments and a surplus of packing peanuts.
The UN General Assembly designated 2015 as the International Year of Light. A global initiative to highlight the importance of light and lighting technologies to societal development.
It provides an opportunity to inspire, educate, and connect people on a global scale. It is anticipated that the International Year of Light will inspire people to think of new ideas, new solutions and new products for the future.
Which brings me rather neatly to a solar project that caught my eye recently.
In my blog, ‘the sweet smell of success‘, I discussed the use of ionic liquids – salt in a liquid state as a result of poor ionic co-ordination – in perfumes and alluded to other fields of research where they are used. Today I’m delving a little further and shining a light on the use of ionic liquids in biofuels.
Researchers at North Carolina State University, US, (NCSU) are investigating the use of ionic liquids to strip lignin from plant cells. Their aim is to find a cost-effective method of processing biomass for biofuel production.
Lignin is a complex phenolic polymer that is found in plant cell walls. It plays an important structural role, providing the plant with strength and rigidity due to a cross-linked structure that is difficult to break down. After cellulose, it is the most abundant source of renewable carbon on earth.
IChemE’s Corporate Partners make a major contribution to the chemical engineering profession and to the world around us. The list of Corporate Partners is growing and it’s worth highlighting some of their success stories in my blog.
Our three-tiered Corporate Partner scheme was launched in 2009 to build links with industry. Corporate Partnership recognises a company’s commitment to engineering excellence, employee professional development and inspiring the next generation.
Bechtel is a global leader in the design, procurement, construction, and project management of oil, chemical, and natural gas facilities.
They employ 500 chemical engineers worldwide and became a Gold Corporate Partner in 2013. They even baked us a cake to help celebrate!
Since 1898, Bechtel have completed more than 25,000 projects in 160 countries on all seven continents. That’s no mean feat. And recently, they constructed the biggest oil refinery in the world.
Harnessing the energy stored in ice cold water has been highlighted as a potential solution to heat towns and cities without the use of fossil fuels – it’s a great example of chemical engineering making a difference.
Tonight at 20:30, all over the world, individuals, companies, government organisations, and possibly even Her Majesty the Queen, will switch off their lights.
This symbolic gesture marks Earth Hour, initiated by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 2007 as a lights-off event to raise awareness of climate change.
162 countries and territories worldwide now take part in Earth Hour.
You can get involved and help to raise awareness about climate change by switching off your lights at 20:30 local time for one hour. You can share your thoughts on the climate change challenge on Twitter using #YourPower.
I recently came across the story of one country, Costa Rica, whose citizens are prepared to go much further in the battle against climate change. Since the beginning of the year, Costa Rica has avoided the use of fossil fuels altogether.
The Costa Rican government recently issued a press release announcing that during the first quarter of 2015, they relied on renewables for 100 per cent of their power generation.
When a young chemical engineer achieves worldwide acclaim for his work less than five years after gaining his PhD, it certainly brings about a sense of excitement.
So it gives me great pleasure to congratulate my colleague and friend, Niall Mac Dowell, on receiving IChemE’s Nicklin Medal for 2014. Already, in his short career he has come to be recognised as one of the UK’s top researchers in the area of low carbon energy.
Niall is the only researcher in the world to have published work at the molecular, unit, integrated process and network scales in the context of carbon capture and storage (CCS).
Last week I was fortunate to attend a meeting of the IChemE London and South East Member Group to discuss the need to transform the technologies and fuels we use, and make smarter use of our resources.
Tom posed a big question: “Can we improve equality of life for 10 billion people and tackle climate change?” A lively debate ensued and I suddenly found myself in a room full of people trying to save the world.
I have always believed that its the job of the chemical engineer to improve quality of life for all and to do it sustainably. However, in recent times I have concluded that we are sleepwalking into a catastrophic climate change future. Serious effort is needed to avert this.
The Global Calculator offers a way to test out our theories and apply solutions to combat climate change.
The classic example of an animal engineer is the beaver, behaving like a civil engineer and building dams. This made me curious to find animals that act like chemical engineers and here are my ten favourite examples:
BP has been asking STEM undergraduate students across the UK to compete in their annual Ultimate Field Trip competition Since 2010. Teams of three students are asked to propose a solution to real-world global energy challenges.
This year’s challenge was based on water – How to address the effective, efficient and sustainable use of wastewater from the production of oil, gas and biofuels.
Students were tasked with developing a novel technical solution to reduce water usage or find an effective use for water produced from operations.
Yesterday proved to be a pivotal moment in my presidential year. We successfully launched the Energy Centre and outlined our plans for this new and exciting initiative – inspired by Chemical Engineering Matters, IChemE’s technical strategy.
I’m going to use today’s blog to explain what the Energy Centre is, what it will do and why it matters to chemical engineers, opinion formers and policy makers around the world.
IChemE is a global organisation, with over 42,000 members in 120 countries. The international launch of our Energy Centre reflected this. We held three simultaneous, video-linked events, with over 60 experts and opinion formers from industry, academia and government, in Brisbane, Kuala Lumpur and London.
Smart grids, along with renewable solar and wind power systems, require affordable and efficient energy storage batteries. The reason for this is rather obvious – renewable energy sources such as wind and solar are intermittent. Also, there is a need to balance supply and demand.
But the current high cost and short life span of storage batteries are preventing widespread market penetration and economic viability of these renewable systems.
IChemE has traditionally awarded a range of medals and prizes to acknowledge the achievements of chemical engineers around the world.
It’s one of the ways in which we recognise that chemical engineering matters at an individual (or team) level, and I always look forward to the announcement of the winners.
The medals and prizes will be presented at a range of events and locations in the months ahead, but given that the list has been publicised in the March issue of The Chemical Engineer (tce) magazine, I thought I’d take the opportunity to blog about some of the winners and their achievements.
First up is the Ambassador Prize, this year awarded to my friend and colleague, Dr Paul Fennell, for his outstanding work to bring greater understanding of chemical engineering to non-chemical engineers – from government ministers to university students and school children, to people in the pub!
A cleaner fossil-fuelled future is something that I, along with many of my colleagues, aspire to achieve during my lifetime. Carbon capture, storage and use, and its potential to mitigate climate change figures strongly on my research agenda.
Now you may think this a bold claim, but the research focuses on adsorption as opposed to absorption – which is the most common method used for capturing carbon dioxide.
Nasser Khazeni, a chemical and materials engineering PhD student from NMSU, led and developed the research into this new technology, with specific focus on post-combustion separation of carbon dioxide.