A Golden Age is a concept that implies a period of great advancement and outstanding achievement for a civilisation or topic. This concept can be applied to chemical engineering.
Although chemical engineering is a relatively new profession, it could be said that it has already gone through two such periods of change and has now entered a third Golden Age of practice, thought and impact. With many great opportunities and challenges that accompany it.
As we advance our knowledge of renewable energies is it important that we are able to reduce the cost of producing them, to make them affordable and widely available.
In an earlier blog I discussed charities working to alleviate energy poverty by building a new economy around solar power.
Researchers from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering and Department of Physics and Astronomy have developed a method to produce spray-on perovskite solar cells.
This is very exciting as it offers a way of developing a low-cost method of producing solar energy cells.
In some parts of the world, at certain times of the day, there’s just too much energy – and nowhere for it to go. It’s a problem more and more energy suppliers are likely to experience.
The problem is particularly acute in places like Hawaii. With no natural fossil fuels it has traditionally shipped oil and coal thousands of miles by sea at great cost. The result for Hawaii’s residents are electricity bills three times higher than mainland USA.
Space travel may not be the natural territory of chemical engineers, but earlier this month NASA launched a satellite which will be of great interest to many in the energy sector and those interested in climate change.
On 2 July 2014, NASA launched the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2 (OCO-2) satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Its mission is to study the sources and sinks of carbon dioxide globally and provide scientists with a better idea of how carbon is contributing to climate change.
Walk up to any typical man or woman in the street and ask them where their energy comes from to power their homes, cook their food, keep the cold out and fuel their cars and you’ll probably get a very long list of answers.
If you posed the question, what power source has more energy in it than all the world’s oil, coal and gas put together, only a few are likely to get the right answer.
In fact the answer is gas hydrates – the lesser known hydrocarbon. Otherwise known as fire ice and more loosely termed methane hydrate, the gas presents as ice crystals with natural methane gas (and other gases) locked inside.
It helps to have thick skin if you’re involved in the energy sector. Although demonised may be too strong a word, large chunks of the energy sector does seem to be dogged by negativity, fear and distrust.
Shale gas extraction by hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ invokes worries about earth tremors and contaminated water supplies. Nuclear energy attracts concerns over cost and safety. Renewable energy infrastructure like tall wind turbines are on the receiving end of vociferous community lobby groups. Energy production is inextricably linked to climate change. All these issues are regular frequenters in the media’s column inches.
What do these purification processes have in common: distillation, extraction, chromatography, adsorption, and crystallization?
All can be energy or materials intensive. In other words – expensive.
Some professionals in the purification business will often quote phrases like: “It is generally accepted that separation processes account for between 40-70 per cent of both the capital and operating costs in industry.”
Energy poverty can mean different things in different parts of the world. In Europe, the debate is most often about the spiraling cost of energy. For some it means cutting-back on their heating and living in colder homes.
But for the one in four people around the world who don’t even have access to an energy grid, the issues are even more acute. It’s a problem that one charity – Village Infrastructure – is determined to help solve.
Village Infrastructure’s (VI) mission is to make energy affordable for the 1.3 billion people who live without electricity. Their innovative approach has already been recognised by the G20, who have provided grant funding.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Biofuels are the cause of much debate and they are controversial in many parts of the world for their displacement of agricultural crops.
However, new analysis in the US suggests that biofuels from algae is more efficient than some other sources of biomass and, importantly, can be grown on untillable land. They believe that land not suitbale for farming in countries like Brazil, Canada, China and the U.S. could be used to produce enough algal biofuel to supplement more than 30 percent of their fuel consumption.
After winning three trophies, including the top prize, at last year’s IChemE Global Awards in Bolton, Queen’s University Belfast has been named among the winners of the prestigious Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) Awards for its ground-breaking work in removing harmful mercury from natural gas.
The technology developed by Queen’s University Ionic Liquid Laboratories (QUILL), in partnership with PETRONAS, is being used to produce mercury-free natural gas at two PETRONAS plants in Malaysia.
We’ve heard a lot about Graphene in recent years and it’s an area which is promising a revolution in electrical and chemical engineering
Graphene is the world’s thinnest material. It is a potent conductor, extremely lightweight, chemically inert and flexible with a large surface area. It could be the perfect candidate for high capacity energy storage.
It’s an opportunity the University of Manchester, UK, is looking to exploit in the coming years.