What’s the water cost of your food? (Day 143)

Yesterday was World Food Day and I’ve taken the opportunity to explore one of the lesser known challenges involved in providing enough food to an expanding population.

The numbers illustratCEM just logoe the challenge – we ‘eat’ 3,496 litres of water everyday and it is one of the issues being explored in IChemE’s first green paper, published yesterday, as a part of our Chemical Engineering Matters technical policy.

Generally, a ‘green paper’ is a policy document designed to stimulate discussion with a wider audience and get the conversation started about what we should do next.

It’s a phrase and approach IChemE is borrowing to help lead the debate on key issues around energy, water, food and health.

Our first green paper – called Water Management in the Food and Drink Industry’ – discusses the importance of water management in the food and drink industry, and the role that chemical engineers play in this.

Continue reading What’s the water cost of your food? (Day 143)

Meeting our Canadian friends and the grand challenges (Day 135)

Canadian flagIt is now over five years since one of my presidential predecessors, Ian Shott, signed an agreement with the Canadian Society for Chemical Engineering (CSChE) to explore a closer relationship between the two organisations.

At the time, Ian said: “Global challenges require global solutions and chemical engineers must work together across national boundaries in order to tackle pressing issues such as energy security, sustainable food production and the transition to a low carbon economy.

“This agreement will enable us to work together on collaborative projects that will highlight the role of the chemical engineer in delivering sustainable solutions.”

These issues, and our commitment to our Canadian friends, are still relevant today and IChemE, in the form of our director of policy – Andy Furlong – will be attending the 64th Canadian Chemical Engineering Conference in Niagara Falls on between 19-22 October 2014.

Continue reading Meeting our Canadian friends and the grand challenges (Day 135)

The original natural gas – poo power (Day 131)

Pig
Pig waste is powering 700 homes and helping to reduce landfill waste by 18,000 tonnes each year in Leicestershire, UK.

It was around this time last year that one of the big winners at the IChemE Global Awards 2013 – PROjEN – were collecting the Bioprocessing Award for their technology used to convert pig waste into energy.

The pig waste, combined with other food waste, was being used to produce biogas capable of generating the equivalent of around 1.2MW of electricity.

The electricity was exported into the local energy grid in Leicestershire, UK, to power an estimated 700 homes and reduce landfill waste by 18,000 tonnes each year.

In the UK, people outnumber pigs by more than ten to one, so one has to ask the question – ‘Can human poo be used in a similar way to provide a sustainable source of energy?’.

Continue reading The original natural gas – poo power (Day 131)

What a waste (Day 124)

Green recycling binA few years ago the ‘waste’ business was estimated to be worth around GBP 272 billion (EUR 300 billion Euros or USD 410 billion).

The study also estimated that the world was producing at least four billion metric tons of waste a year – equivalent to world production of grain and steel combined.

These figures didn’t include construction, mining, agricultural and forestry wastes – suggesting that the real figure is much larger.

They are huge numbers and will grow as our population increases and we get better at recycling and managing our waste.

Continue reading What a waste (Day 124)

Building public confidence in fracking (Day 112)

Fracking demonstration
Balcombe, UK, fracking demonstration (Image – Randi Sokoloff – Shutterstock.com)

A few weeks ago, I provided some information to the media in relation to a fracking ‘scare story’. As I always do in these situations, I look at the evidence and provide a factual and objective assessment. As chemical engineers that’s all we can ever do.

Realistically, concerns over fracking are unlikely to disappear. There will always be sceptics, but they have an absolute right to be heard. It’s up to us to listen carefully and respond to these concerns – consistently and in language that everyone understands.

Continue reading Building public confidence in fracking (Day 112)

Avoiding the dreaded ‘fatbergs’ (Day 110)

A FOG blocking a sewage pipe - Image courtesy of Severn Trent Water
A FOG blocking a sewage pipe – Image courtesy of Severn Trent Water

Fatbergs recently received some news coverage in the UK, with a giant fatberg – 80 metres in length – being found in a west London sewer by Thames Water. So, to put that in perspective, 80 metres is the length of a commercial plane.

For those of you who don’t know exactly what a fatberg is, it is the term given to the solidified lump of fat that can cause blockages in sewer systems.

The problem stems from people pouring hot cooking oil down the sink, and when the oil hits the cold temperature of the sewers, it solidifies to fat. Wet wipes, food, cotton buds and litter can easily cling to this fat and form congealed masses or fatbergs.

Another phrase used in the water industry, for example at Severn Trent Water, to describe these unpleasant wastewater blockers are ‘FOGs’ – fats, oil and grease.

Continue reading Avoiding the dreaded ‘fatbergs’ (Day 110)

Get on your hydrogen bike (Day 109)

Hy-cycle
UNSW’s Hy-cycle powered by a hydrogen fuel cell.

Some stories in the world of chemical engineering have stand-out lines that really grab my attention.

This week I came across an interesting story from Australia about a team of chemical engineers that have built a bicycle powered by a hydrogen fuel cell.

In itself this is a great achievement, but it was a quote from associate professor Kondo-Francois Aguey-Zinsou, who works in the chemical engineering department at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), that really caught my attention.

Continue reading Get on your hydrogen bike (Day 109)

Water versus energy – which is more precious? (Day 107)

Water damSome of you will be aware of the ‘nexus’ approach to the grand chemical engineering challenges. Although, we often look at energy, food, water and health in isolation, in fact many of them should be considered alongside each other.

One of these important relationships is energy and water.

Of course if you’ve got energy and water, the debate is often about cost and service. If you’ve got neither, then it’s a completely different debate where capital, skills and infrastructure become the priority topics.

Continue reading Water versus energy – which is more precious? (Day 107)

Combating sewer corrosion (Day 96)

Concrete sewer tunnelSewer management is a difficult business; it depends on a careful balance of chemical and civil engineering.

Sewer infrastructure maintenance is a costly business, e.g. in America the federal government has required cities to invest more than $15 billion in new pipes since 2007.

The concrete foundations of sewers are often corroded due to additives used in the processing of drinking water. In Australia some concrete pipes are being corroded by up to 90 per cent.

One group who knows this well are the Sewer Corrosion and Odour Research (SCORe) Team at the Advance Water Management Centre at the University of Queensland, Australia, who recently published an article in the journal Science outlining a method to reduce sewer corrosion.

Continue reading Combating sewer corrosion (Day 96)

Digital brain implants and Rubik’s cubes (Day 90)

man in computerWhen you think of data storage, I think it would be safe to assume that water is not the first thing that comes to mind. Rather it is hardware and electronic components that we associate with storing our information, such as saving documents on a USB pen drive or computer hard-drives.

Chemical engineers from the University of Michigan, in collaboration with researchers at New York University, US, have developed a colloidal cluster arrangement of nanoparticles that could lead to a form of wet information storage.

The team, led by Sharon Glotzer, the Stuart W. Churchill Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Michigan, have discovered a new method for storing data in microscopic particles suspended in a solution, also referred to as “wet computing”.

Continue reading Digital brain implants and Rubik’s cubes (Day 90)

The zero water ambition (Day 83)

Factory waterWorldwide, industry accounts for 22 per cent of all water consumption. This figure is expected to rise to 24 per cent of total freshwater withdrawal in 2025.

Most industries are working to reduce their water usage and many companies have business targets to reduce water consumption. Some even have the ambition of running ‘zero water’ factories.

But what are ‘zero water’ factories and are they really achievable?

Continue reading The zero water ambition (Day 83)

Electronic bugging of the water variety (Day 79)

Water testing
Current water monitoring can be costly, time-consuming and require technical expertise.

Sharing new technology and developments, and making sure there is greater equality in its use across the world, requires political commitment.

But, arguably, making technological advancements that are affordable, especially for developing countries, is essential if it is to be deployed on a global scale.

So, I was really encouraged to read a story this week about something important to all of us – a new lower cost way of testing for water pollution and checking the quality of drinking water.

Continue reading Electronic bugging of the water variety (Day 79)

It’s a sell out (Day 72)

C0145_13-slider-CEMThe first edition of IChemE’s technical strategy, Chemical Engineering Matters, was a sell out. There are no more copies left.

So I’m pleased to announce that a second edition has been published and you can find the new version of Chemical Engineering Matters here.

The simple statement that is ‘chemical engineering matters’ is not a cliché. It is the truth.

Continue reading It’s a sell out (Day 72)

No ordinary oasis (Day 65)

Lake in desertWhat’s the furthest you’ve ever walked for clean water?

If you’re lucky, not very far.

If you’re unlucky, in some arid parts of the developing world, you could be spending hours walking several kilometres each day just to collect water to survive.

And forget about those romantic images of verdant oases. The water is often in polluted, dirty and in unsafe pools, especially for children.

However, putting the economics to one side for the moment, there are solutions. Cue the anaerobic digester and a new bit of technology attached to it called the McLanahan Nutrient Separation System.

Continue reading No ordinary oasis (Day 65)

Engineering life into perspective (Day 52)

Global Water Brigades Ghana
Global Brigade volunteers in Ghana

Some professions have an ability to provide a unique insight into life that can transform a career into a lifelong vocation, not just a job that pays the bills every month. I’d certainly rank the engineering professions into this category.

The transformation often takes place at university, where engineering undergraduates start to become exposed to the power and potential of their chosen profession through initiatives like Global Brigades.

Continue reading Engineering life into perspective (Day 52)

A purification money saver (Day 39)

Abstract filterWhat 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.”

Continue reading A purification money saver (Day 39)

Everyone should have a human right to water (Day 33)

Water well
Image copyright: Africa924 / Shutterstock.com

In the UK we rarely think about our water supply. It is relatively easy to turn on a tap and have an instant and clean drink of water.

But this is not the case in all parts of the world.

Currently about a quarter of the world’s population do not have clean water to drink, despite the UN designating the last decade (2005-2015) as the international decade for action, ‘Water for Life‘.

When you consider that water is essential to survival it is staggering that around 1.8 billion people still face the daily challenge of contaminated water.

Continue reading Everyone should have a human right to water (Day 33)

No waste for music lovers (Day 31)

Rock musicSince 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?

Continue reading No waste for music lovers (Day 31)

A most frustrating of professions (Day 29)

Question markThere 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.

Continue reading A most frustrating of professions (Day 29)

Seawater powered planes and ships (Day 28)

WarshipsSeawater 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.

Continue reading Seawater powered planes and ships (Day 28)

Energy from toilet water (Day 14)

Toilet FlushThere 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.

Continue reading Energy from toilet water (Day 14)