Outreach is a really important part of being a chemical engineer. Inspiring the next generation of engineers should be a priority for all of us.
Throughout my year as president, I have become more aware of the great outreach initiatives and campaigns run by companies, organisations and universities around the world.
I’m proud to see so many chemical engineers who are enthusiastic about shining a light on our profession.
I recently attended a presentation given by Dr Mark Haw, senior lecturer in chemical and process engineering at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, UK. He talked about a fantastic group of researchers who run nano-themed workshops to engage with schools and the public through ‘Really Small Science‘.
So I have asked Mark to tell us more about their nano-enterprise:
Contamination is a big danger in the food industry. For example, in the US nearly half of all food borne illnesses can be attributed to contamination.
Preventing and controlling bacterial contamination is critical to ensure the food we eat is safe.
The most common strategy to do this is through industrial washing of food in water containing chlorine. However, this is often not effective and there is a need to develop new methods to combat food contamination.
A team of researchers from Wayne State University, US, have found an alternative to conventional methods; by using oregano oil, which is known to have a strong antibacterial effect.
Lithium ion batteries are used in a wide range of applications and technologies. As it happens; if you are reading my blog on a smartphone, laptop or tablet, you are probably holding one right now. From mobile phones to electric cars, Li-ion batteries are all around us, but how do we make sure they are safe?
As I have remarked previously in my blog ‘Bulletproof batteries‘, there are significant safety issues associated with Li-ion batteries. In 2013, a problem with overheating batteries forced airlines to ground their Boeing 787 ‘Dreamliner’ aircraft, after reports of batteries bursting into flames.
The use of Li-ion batteries is becoming more wide-spread. So we need to gain a better understanding of the hazards and risks associated with their use.
Most people, in the UK at least, will be familiar with the fairy tale of ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears‘, where Goldilocks, a young girl, seeks out products that are not too strong and not too weak – aiming for ones that are ‘just right’.
This is the aim of chemical engineers who work on the development and delivery of consumer products. There is a strong focus on achieving a consistent outcome that the customer deems to be ‘just right’.
David described how science and engineering are applied to transform household detergents into higher value specialty products. He went on to explain how improved consumer satisfaction is being delivered by creating a washing product that leaves an appealing fragrance on freshly laundered clothes.
David and his team achieved this by creating a product that deposits perfume micro-capsules onto fabric during the wash cycle. The capsules subsequently fracture and release a pleasing odour in controlled doses.
Chemotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses one or more chemical substances to kill cancerous cells. It can be used in conjunction with other cancer treatments, or given alone. But as there are over 100 different chemotherapy drugs, our ability to prescribe the most effective drug to treat a particular tumour can be difficult.
The device, which is about the same size as a grain of rice, is not swallowed or injected, but instead is implanted directly into a cancerous tumour, where it can directly administer small doses of up to 30 different drugs.
We are all heavily reliant on personal computers. At home, at work and on the move. However, we have all experienced the noise and annoyance of the cooling fan in our computers when we push their processing power too hard.
For an individual to excel at chemical engineering, both a good education and personal determination are needed.
Chemical engineering education must be built on a solid foundation in the fundamental principles of chemical engineering science. However, there is a need to constantly review and modernise not just our course content, but the way we deliver it as well.
Maple syrup can render bacteria more vulnerable to antibiotics.
The syrup, which is produced by concentrating the sap from North American maple trees, is a rich source of phenolic compounds with antioxidant properties.
And it is these antioxidant properties that prompted the team, led by Professor Nathalie Tufenkji, investigate the potential of maple syrup.
The team began by removing a concentrated extract from the syrup. They tested this extract on several infection-causing strains of bacteria, including E. coli and Proteus mirabilis (a common cause of urinary tract infection).
The syrup was mildly effective combating the bacteria on its own. However, once mixed with the antibiotics the maple syrup was particularly effective; seemingly synchronising its assault with the pharmaceutical ingredient.
Very few discoveries truly revolutionise the way we look at the world.
However, the discovery of the structure of DNA is one of them. And it was on this day in 1953, that the structure of DNA was published in the journal Nature.
This discovery is often seen as controversial, not due to its scientific content, but the fact that the work was largely attributed to one team; Watson and Crick.
This work was published at the same time in a number of papers in Nature by three teams: Watson and Crick; Wilkins, Stokes, and Wilson; and Franklin and Gosling.
The key break through for Watson and Crick’s work came from Rosalind Franklin who studied DNA using X-ray crystallography, but this was largely unacknowledged at the time. In 1962 Crick and Watson, along with Wilkins, received a Nobel Prize for their discovery. Rosalind had died four years earlier so was not eligible for a Nobel Prize.
So to ensure that we celebrate all their work today, I thought I would bring to your attention a recent innovation, which would not have been possible without this major discovery.
The team used synthetically designed shape-shifting molecules which are able to resemble natural DNA bases, but can convert into a different molecular structure by repositioning their hydrogen atoms on nitrogen and oxygen atoms.
I always enjoy reading stories and watching films that are set in the future – often in amazement at the mind-boggling ideas and inventions that are imagined by authors and scriptwriters.
However, I think I’ve spotted a trend. Much of the contemporary science fiction on offer in films and books is decidedly dystopian in its outlook.
This means that it paints a dark vision of the future. Maybe this does science fiction a disservice? I want to be a little more positive and take a look at a few stories that explore the upside of the advances that science and engineering might bring.
A good science fiction story can be short hand for an excellent innovative idea. It might even inspire researchers to try something different.
Looking at this premise from a different angle, let’s examine some notable examples from the genre where science fiction has become science fact.
In the UK this week, it is Parkinson’s Awareness Week. The aim is to raise awareness of the disease by doing a good deed and tweeting about it using #upyourfriendly.
We can all get involved; just by being nice to the people we meet. You can make new friends and maybe someone’s life a little easier without even knowing it. Check out the campaign to learn more.
With this strategy in mind, I thought I’d raise awareness of the work of some chemical engineers who are definitely ‘up-ing their friendly’ by working behind the scenes to help combat the symptoms of this debilitating disease.
Parkinson’s disease affects one in every 500 people. That’s an estimated 127,000 people in the UK – or around 8.5 million globally.
It is a progressive neurological condition that affects nerve cells in the brain, causing them to die. This results in lower dopamine levels in the body with serious implications for mobility and emotional behaviour.
Process safety is embedded in our profession and is considered in everything we do. Because of this we are always striving towards improvements in process design, process delivery and also in research – something we definitely need to talk more about.
So I was pleased to learn that a group of researchers from Norway, Italy and Canada have investigated a dynamic approach to risk management.
Their particular focus is on metal dust explosions. Dust can present a significant hazard in mining, food processing (eg flour dust) and other industrial settings.
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.
Many people in the chemical engineering community have taken their inspiration from Professor Roger Sargent who served IChemE as its President in 1973. Roger is described by many as the “Father of process systems engineering”.
It was entirely fitting that IChemE should create a medal in his honour in 2014 to recognise research in computer-aided product and process engineering (CAPE).
The first recipient of the Sargent Medal is himself an undisputed leader in the field.
Roger Sargent’s influence in the field of process systems engineering is massive – not just because of his ground-breaking research, but also because of the extraordinary scale of his academic ‘family tree’ of research students. By the beginning of the 21st century, the tree included seven ‘generations’, numbering over six hundred people in all.
We all want to make a good first impression, but when we feel anxious our body responds by sweating and this can result in an unappealing body odour.
When we want to make the right impact at an interview or on a date, we need a little help to make sure we are smelling fresh.
So fear not. There’s now a perfume that improves its performance the more we sweat.
Researchers at the Queen’s University Ionic Liquid Laboratories (QUILL) Research Centre in Belfast have developed a unique perfume. It releases its aroma the more it comes into contact with moisture. So the more you sweat, the better you smell!
One of the central messages in my presidential address was the resolute assertion that chemical engineers should stand up and speak out. We need to tell the world about the difference that we make.
I’ve been repeating this mantra pretty much ever since. Indeed that’s the driving purpose behind this blog.
But there’s a key consideration in all of this that engineers of all types frequently overlook. We have to talk to the public in a language that they understand. This sometimes proves challenging because let’s be honest, some of the stuff that we do is pretty complicated.
Thirty years ago we could get away with fobbing people off with the argument that “it’s over your head; don’t worry; leave it to us…” But that won’t wash today. We have a duty to explain what we do and we must be able to explain things simply and lucidly.
They are one of only a handful of companies involved in every aspect of pharmaceutical production from start to finish; from research to supply. So next time you pick up a prescription, there’s a good chance that AstraZeneca might have been involved.
Joe co-invented this new method with colleagues Alex Ermoshkin, chief technology officer at Carbon3D and Edward T. Samulski, also professor of chemistry at UNC.
Joe says that this idea was inspired by the Hollywood film, Terminator 2: Judgement Day. In this film, the T-1000 robot rises from a liquid metal puddle to assume its form. This made Joe and his team think – why can’t we create objects in this way?
Mention the word ‘spinning’ to most people, and they might be transported back to their childhood and fairy tales of princesses in towers. They might think about industrial Britain in the 19th century, and the revolution in textile manufacture. Or they might be reminded of the gym session that they look forward to and dread in equal measure every week.
But for chemical engineers, spinning – of fibres into membranes for separation – can be a doorway to a sustainable future.
Membranes offer several advantages in separation over alternatives such as distillation, sublimation or crystallisation. They permit the use both fractions (the permeate and the retentate) after separation and because no heating is involved, less energy is used.
The team, led by Dr David Hazafy, have developed a strip of plastic – containing ‘smart’ ink – which turns colourless from an initial blue colour to indicate a high exposure of ultraviolet light from the sun. This should prompt the user to move into the shade before burning, reducing the risk of skin cancer.
We have been attracted to gold for millennia both for its beauty and its value.
Gold is considered so attractive because it does not corrode or tarnish. It’s also very ductile. These properties have led to gold being used in works of art and treasures of great historical and cultural significance.
Gold has inspired great art, but what about great chemistry and chemical engineering?
During the evening Graham shared many interesting insights into UK catalysis research. Catalysis is at the core of the UK economy and contributes over UK £50 billion annually. It is central to the wellbeing of society and is involved in some way in 80 per cent of all manufactured goods.
Graham then told me about his work with gold catalysts. With his team, he has discovered that gold has the potential to improve health, clean up the environment and save lives.
This year’s recipient of the Geldart Medal for a major contribution to research in particle technology has had such a long and distinguished career in chemical engineering, he hardly needs introduction.
But perhaps not everyone knows that Dr Colin Thornton is actually a civil engineer.
Colin’s cross over to chemical engineering in 1984 was a great move. From that time he became a pioneer in the application of the Discrete Element Method (DEM) to problems in particle technology.
Colin soon realised that the crux of the matter lay in contact mechanics for particle interactions. At the time, there was little or no theoretical basis for describing elastoplastic and adhesive contact deformation.
Spinal cord injuries are extremely serious and the road to recovery is often a long one.
Two million people worldwide are affected by spinal cord problems that result in the loss of motor and sensory function below the point of injury, which can be devastating.
I’ve blogged previously about a team from Stanford University, which is working reduce the trauma of injections and improve the ‘healing help for spinal injuries‘. It’s an area where chemical engineers are making a difference. Here’s another great example.
Being a part of the blogosphere over the past 307 days has opened my eyes to how many of us bloggers are actually out there. So I was especially pleased to read today’s story about how blogging caused a scientific breakthrough.
Research into the innate immunity of opossums (marsupials found in the Americas) to a variety of snake venoms and their possible use to create antivenoms was first patented by Binie Ver Lipps in 1996.
However, this research went largely unnoticed. But Binie’s work was mentioned by a blogger in 2012. This led to an article being written on Yahoo!News, which was subsequently read by chemical engineering professor Dr Claire F. Komives.
Inspired by the story Claire and her team, from San Jose State University, US, demonstrated that genetically modified bacteria could produce the protective peptide at low costs.
This simple peptide could prevent countless deaths from snakebites and the antivenom relies on a sequence of just 11 amino acids, copied from an opossum protein.
Sustainable water research is big news in South Africa especially for the wine industry.
The South African wine industry is the 9th largest wine producer in the world, with over 100,000 hectares of land dedicated to vineyards.
South Africa is committed to sustainable wine growing and recognises the problems of cultivating the majority of its wine in a biodiversity hotspot: the Cape Floral Kingdom.
So the introduction of the integrity and sustainability seal for wine, launched in 2010, certifies that the wine in question has been made in a manner that is respectful to nature, and guarantees sustainable wine production.
To make their wines sustainable, producers are taking responsibility by dedicating land for conservation, removing foreign plants and restoring wetlands and rivers. But there have been particular issues in many regions, for example in the Witwatersrand Basin there are reports of soil being highly acidic and contamination of water resources.
Today is UN World Water Day – a day for water and for sustainable development.
This year, World Water Day focuses on the following ideas: water is health; water is nature; water is urbanisation; water is industry; water is energy; water is food; and water is equality. But I want to add something to this list: water is chemical engineering.
The importance of water is often overlooked. Water is not only essential for life but it is of key importance in chemical engineering too.
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.