Today we go to the big projects in chemical engineering that require strategy, innovation and teamwork. These winners are demonstrating great chemical engineering in its purest form. All of the projects below have demonstrated a key chemical engineering skill, systems thinking, and a drive for achieving the best results.
Take a look at their work below and don’t forget to leave a comment.
To help you stay up-to-date with the latest achievements from the chemical engineering research community here is our monthly instalment with some of the latest stories.
September’s five stories of amazing chemical engineering research and innovation are:
The Popeye effect – powered by spinach
Popeye was right; we can be powered by spinach! Researchers from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology have developed a bio-photo-electro-chemical (BPEC) cell that produces electricity and hydrogen from water using sunlight, using a simple membrane extract from spinach leaves. The article, publish in the journal Nature Communications, demonstrates the unique combination of a man-made BPEC cell and plant membranes, which absorb sunlight and convert it into a flow of electrons highly efficiently. The team hope that this paves the way for the development of new technologies for the creation of clean fuels from renewable sources. The raw material of the device is water, and its products are electric current, hydrogen and oxygen.
IChemE’s flagship process safety symposium, known far and wide simply as ‘Hazards‘, goes from strength to strength. From its modest beginnings in Manchester, England in the 1960’s the event has grown into an international brand attracting delegates to conferences in Europe, Australasia and South East Asia.
Last month we welcomed over 300 delegates to the Edinburgh International Conference Centre for Hazards 26, a three-day event that featured some notable keynote speakers, who offered some powerful insights on a wide range of process safety topics.
Those who were fortunate to have a ticket for the biggest process safety event in Europe this year, went back to their day jobs armed with valuable lessons in how to improve process safety performance. But for those of you who couldn’t attend, here’s a flavour of the key messages that were delivered by the keynote speakers and some of the big names who were present in Edinburgh.
Today is International Women’s Day, and to celebrate we decided to put a chemical engineering leading lady in the spotlight – Dame Judith Hackitt.
Judith Hackitt, who was IChemE’s second female president (2013-2014), has had an eventful 2016 so far. The Chair of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), was made Dame in the New Year Honours, and has recently announced her new appointment as Chair at the EEF, the manufacturers organisation.
We sat down with her to look back on her career so far, and get her perspective on the gender debate, and the future of chemical engineering.
Thanks for joining me today Judith. You have had quite an impressive career. I’m sure you’re a bit sick of this question but what was it like to be made a Dame in the New Year’s Honours List?
Well on a day-to-day basis it doesn’t make any difference, I’m not using the title anywhere and everywhere and insisting people call me Dame Judith! I was at home on the day the letter arrived, it was first of all a big surprise but also a massive honour. It’s hard to describe but you feel like it’s something special. I really am genuinely honoured to be offered this, and it was a delight to write back and say yes, of course I’d accept.
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.
Thorp reprocessing plant – Sellafield Ltd
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 name, Trevor Kletz, needs little introduction to anyone who has been involved with chemical process safety over the past forty years. Trevor died in 2013 at the age of ninety.
He is greatly missed but his impact on the chemical engineering profession was enormous and his name is rarely uttered along without the words ‘hero’ or ‘guru’ as well as ‘teacher’, ‘mentor’ or ‘friend’, in the same breath.
Trevor spent his entire career at ICI (Imperial Chemical Industries), and by the time of his retirement in 1982 he had created a safety culture within the company with a major positive impact on accident statistics.
This success was attributed to his powerful intellect on one hand, but also to his exceptional communication skills. Trevor’s ability to reduce complicated issues to simple fundamentals was the stuff of legend.
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.
An exploding lithium ion battery Photo Credit | Donal Finegan, UCL
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.
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.
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?
Photo Credit | Cardiff University Professor Graham Hutchings
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.
But the use of lithium batteries hasn’t been without some issues. For example, in 2013 Boeing was forced to ground its entire 787 Dreamliner fleet after problems were detected with the lithium ion batteries in the plane’s electrical system. The batteries reportedly burst into flames under some conditions – not a good state of affairs at 43,000 feet!
Engineers and chemical engineers are continually trying to improve quality of life. But sometimes, simply protecting what we have already is the most important thing – life itself.
Over the past 15 years, terrorism has made the world more cautious, with increasing amounts of money spent on intelligence and prevention. Recent events in Paris suggest how hard the challenge is.
Some of the answers to detecting terrorism are technological and involves the expertise of engineers like Ling Zang, a University of Utah professor of materials science and engineering.
Ling Zang, a University of Utah professor of materials science and engineering, holds a prototype detector that uses a new type of carbon nanotube material for use in handheld scanners to detect explosives, toxic chemicals and illegal drugs. Photo Credit: Dan Hixon, University of Utah College of Engineering
(L-R): Yasmin Ali; Geoff Maitland; IChemE’s director of policy, Andy Furlong; and Dr. Tarit Mukhopadhyay at the Chemical Engineers and the Media event
Earlier this month, the IChemE London and South East member group hosted an event called, ‘Chemical Engineers and the Media‘, and I was fortunate enough to have been asked to sit on the panel to share my thoughts and experiences on the topic.
After the explosion of the Macondo well in April 2010, otherwise known as the Deepwater Horizon disaster, I was thrust into the media spotlight and ‘Into the lion’s den‘ as it were. So it was only natural that I retold my story at this event in more detail.
It was identified that there was a real need for a technical expert to provide an objective commentary and help explain what was happening after the disaster. I was given only ten minutes to decide whether or not I would be that person. And as you can probably guess, I said yes. Continue reading →
A dark, damp, eerie cave with dripping water and furtive noises echoing through an underground chamber may seem an unusual source of inspiration for a bit of chemical engineering, but today’s blog illustrates that ideas can come from anywhere.
I’m sure you’re familiar with stalagmites and stalactites – those spiky, rocky formations that grow up from the ground and drop down from the roof of caves.
Geologists have known for a while how these form and have established mathematical models for their formation.
Interestingly, stalagmite formation is an issue in nuclear processing plants industry and researchers have used some of the knowledge from geologists to create a versatile model to predict how these stalagmite-like structures form.
The main point of the research is to is to reduce the number of potentially harmful manual inspections of nuclear waste containers.
Two projects have caught my eye recently that may give some hints about where we might build some of our power stations and processing facilities in the future.
Quite rightly, land-based power stations and industrial units are subject to careful scrutiny before planning permission is given. The fact they are so visible and close to communities means the opinions of thousands of people may need to be considered.
Even offshore facilities like fixed wind farms, visible from coastlines, bear the scars of public consultation.
But what if we generated our power or processed raw materials further out into our seas and oceans, beyond the horizon. Would that offer a new solution?
Floating energy – the Fukushima Floating Wind Turbine Demonstration Project. Image by Fukushima Forward
One of the most important roles that chemical engineers can play is improving safety.
A good example of this is the IChemE Safety Centre (ISC) which sets up a new impetus and framework for process safety.
Despite the good work of chemical engineers in mitigating dangerous events, they still occur.
Often the reason given for these incidents is a lack of understanding of what process safety is and how it differs from occupational safety.
For example people often use this to explain why the BP Texas City refinery explosion and fire, which sadly killed 15 people and injured 180 more, occurred. It has been suggested that there was too great a focus on reducing the high number of occupational safety incidents, rather than the more infrequent but much more serious process safety incidents.
I have put together this list of ten differences between process and occupational (personal) safety to help dispel this (however it should be noted that this list is my opinion and there is a lot of overlap between process and occupational safety – hence the confusion!):
In two days time, many people across the UK will be heading outdoors to enjoy an annual festival called ‘Bonfire Night’, which celebrates the failed attempt by Guy Fawkes and others to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605.
It is a nervous time, leading up to, and on the night for the rescue services with fireworks used widely. Accidents inevitably happen.
In the chemical and process industries, the fireworks industry is one of the most hazardous to work in.
In 2013, there were eight reported accidents in firework factories worldwide including China (3), India (2), Italy, Canada and Vietnam killing at least 48 people and injuring over a hundred.
The worst incident in Northern Vietnam’s Phú Tho Province killed 26 people and damaged an estimated 1,300 households in a three kilometre blast radius.
Aluminium is everywhere. In fact, it’s the third most abundant element on planet earth after oxygen and silicon.
Its low density and strength, coupled with its outstanding resistance to corrosion, make it one of the most useful metals we have.
Aluminium and its alloys are essential to the aerospace and construction industries where it finds widespread use as a structural material.
Our homes wouldn’t be the same without Aluminium either. Modern doors and window frames are commonly constructed from PVC coated aluminium. Many kitchen utensils are made from aluminium as are the cans that contain beer and soft drinks.
And where would we be without that handy roll of ‘tin’ foil, which is of course made from – you’ve guessed it; aluminium.
Whistleblowing is a term that causes concern for business, governments and individuals. It can have severe legal and corporate implications. It undoubtedly affects the future careers of the individuals involved. It also requires courage.
Credit: Gil C | Shutterstock.com
In some ways it doesn’t help that there is a media obsession with high profile cases like WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, as well as the case of Edward Snowden, who exposed global surveillance programmes.
Neither case encourages the important role whistleblowing can play. In some sectors, like health, greater attempts are being made to encourage whistleblowing.
In our profession, whistleblowing is especially relevant to lapses in process safety and standards.
Whenever I talk to chemical engineers, whether members of IChemE or otherwise, within the nuclear industry, there can be no doubt that one of the main issues affecting their work is public perception and understanding.
People do tend to recoil when something is described as radioactive or nuclear, and in part, this is due to images from World War II, and subsequent portrayal in the media.
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.
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.
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.
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.
IChemE’s Professional Process Safety Engineers are now located on five continents
A few weeks ago I blogged about chemical engineers and their role in the production of antibiotics to save lives during the D-Day landings in 1944. Antibiotics are now part of a standard issue battlefield medical first aid kit to help save lives during what is described as a ‘platinum 10 minutes’.
Sadly, there are still around 40 conflicts in the world today. And as we’ve seen in the Middle East and Syria, chemical weapons are still being produced and used in some of those conflicts.
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.
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?
Forty years ago, today, the explosion at the Flixborough Nypro Chemicals site near Scunthorpe, UK, killed 28 people and injured 36 others.
It resulted in the almost complete destruction of the plant. Further afield, the blast injured another 53 people and caused extensive damage to around 2,000 buildings.
With the exception of the Buncefield fire in 2005, it remains the biggest post war explosion in the UK.
At the time there were no specific UK regulations to control major industrial hazards. The incident also exposed weaknesses in the understanding of hazards, the design of buildings, management systems and organisation.