Can you lead a chemical-free life? (Day 46)

NewspaperI think there is a general perception that natural is good and man-made is bad. And if that man-made thing is overtly ‘chemical’, then the first instinct of many people is to avoid it.

The general public’s view of ‘chemicals’ has evolved over many decades, if not centuries. And we have to assume that the historical view of chemicals is rooted in some form of legitimate concern.

But does today’s perception of ‘chemicals’ actually reflect modern reality, especially the way it is portrayed in the media?

Continue reading Can you lead a chemical-free life? (Day 46)

Will energy always be so unpopular? (Day 45)

CoalIt 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.

Continue reading Will energy always be so unpopular? (Day 45)

Conflict clean-up (Day 44)

Chemical WeaponsA 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.

Continue reading Conflict clean-up (Day 44)

Ask the President (Day 43)

Geoff Maitland IChemE PresidentAccountability, openness and transparency. Three important words in the governance of any charitable and membership organisation like IChemE.

IChemE also has a wealth of knowledge and history acquired since we were established in 1922, and an active membership eager to share their experiences and expertise to advance the profession.

As your President, I also want to be accountable and share my knowledge where I can. So, throughout my presidency, there is an open invitation to send in your reasonable questions and thoughts on issues relating to our technical policy – Chemical Engineering Matters. Every now and again, we’ll publish the answers starting with today.

Continue reading Ask the President (Day 43)

Twin track cancer attack (Day 42)

PillsCurrent statistics tell us that around three identical twins are born for every 1,000 deliveries worldwide. Overall, quite low odds.

However, in the UK at least, for every 1,000 children born today, over a third will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lifetimes. It’s a worrying statistic and an area where chemical engineering has a role to play.

My statistical interest in twins and cancer incidence rates was prompted by a great chemical engineering story from the University of New South Wales, Australia.

Continue reading Twin track cancer attack (Day 42)

Let’s get competitive (Day 41)

snails racingWhether we like it or not, all of us are living in a competitive world. Even professions need to compete to show their continuing relevance and value, especially when you consider that their relationships with members can and does endure throughout entire working lives of 40 years and more.

Of course, some professions compete better than others. By design or luck they have a desirable image, higher status and better profile with important stakeholders such as young people, parents, business, decision-makers like governments, and many others.

Continue reading Let’s get competitive (Day 41)

Creative juices…with alcohol and frozen (Day 40)

Mahiki LICIf you’re in the middle of your chemical engineering course, you may still be thinking about what to do when you graduate. Thankfully, there’s lots of choice, but how about taking on some of the world’s biggest consumer brands and using your chemical engineering skills to make…well…frozen lollies or popsicles? Continue reading Creative juices…with alcohol and frozen (Day 40)

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)

Tour de Engineers? (Day 38)

Tour de France
Image by Sergii Rudiuk / Shutterstock.com

The Tour de France sets off tomorrow for its 101st edition and over the duration of 23 days will see 198 riders from 22 teams attempt to complete 21 stages and cover a total distance of 3,664 kilometres or 2,276 miles.

If you’re a member of the Team Sky nine-man team you’ll probably be sitting on a carbon fibre bike worth £12,000 (USD $20,000). Also, most of the field will be using a Kevlar-based helmet ranging from £120 (USD $200) and upwards.

Continue reading Tour de Engineers? (Day 38)

Getting ready for the sugar wars (Day 37)

Diabetes indicatorSmoking, passive-smoking and tobacco-related products like ‘chewing tobacco’ still kill around six million people a year. Despite all the education, controls and stigmatisation of smokers over many decades, the casualty rate is expected to rise even further to eight million by 2030.

But humanity is likely to face an even bigger killer in the future – obesity.

Worldwide obesity has doubled since 1980. Current estimates suggest 3.4 million adults die every year as a result of being overweight.

Continue reading Getting ready for the sugar wars (Day 37)

Finding a way out of energy poverty (Day 36)

Kenya Solar Panel project
Kenya Solar Panel Project

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.

Continue reading Finding a way out of energy poverty (Day 36)

Big plans for minnows of nature (Day 35)

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.

Continue reading Big plans for minnows of nature (Day 35)

Masters of your own destiny (Day 34)

Your Life campaignHave you ever considered how engineering is perceived in different countries, and whether they face similar challenges on issues like recruitment, skills shortages and diversity?

Recently, I took a very quick ‘online peak’ around the world to look at some of these issues, especially the role of women in engineering.

Continue reading Masters of your own destiny (Day 34)

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)

Mixing it with the politicians (Day 32)

Links day
Nerea Cuadra, Process Engineer, Tate and Lyle, meets her local MP, Jim Fitzpatrick MP in the House of commons

If you are familiar with political life in the UK, you’ll know that when the House of Commons is sitting, you are allowed access to the central lobby and can request to see your local Member of Parliament (MP).

They may not always be there, but it can be quite an effective way to lobby UK politicians and is one of the benefits of living in a democracy.

Continue reading Mixing it with the politicians (Day 32)

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)

Innovation, innovation, innovation (Day 30)

Cake CandlesWith some exceptions, many countries, including the UK, have just been through the worst recession ever. Even now, nations have still to return to 2008 economic output levels.

If you managed to survive the last six years, you’re likely to be leaner and more efficient, but still cautious. As economists say – confidence is the magical word to drive investment, jobs and expansion.

Continue reading Innovation, innovation, innovation (Day 30)

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)

Educating a safety culture (Day 26)

Burning buildingImprovements 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.

Continue reading Educating a safety culture (Day 26)

Getting your hands dirty (Day 25)

The Big Rig
The Big Rig – Lakes College West Cumbria

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.

Continue reading Getting your hands dirty (Day 25)

Ten reasons to become a chemical engineer (Day 24)

NumbersThe media (and generally readers) love lists of things. Easily digestible and readable, they are a great way to start debate and communicate in a few words. A quick Google will show you just how many top ten lists there.

Anyway, throughout my presidency I thought I’d use this handy technique in my blogs to get your views and comments – beginning with ten reasons to become a chemical engineer. In no particular order, my top ten are:

Continue reading Ten reasons to become a chemical engineer (Day 24)

Every profession needs their champions (Day 23)

Albert Einstein
Science icon – Albert Einstein (Bokic Bojan – Shutterstock.com)

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.

Continue reading Every profession needs their champions (Day 23)

Tough Gloves (Day 22)

Gloves and needleThere 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?

Continue reading Tough Gloves (Day 22)

Even racing cars need fuel (Day 21)

Mercedes GP F1 Team Lewis Hamilton
Mercedes GP F1 Team Lewis Hamilton (David Acosta Allely – Shutterstock.com)

A few days ago, I published a blog called Behind every great sportsperson is a chemical engineer and I promised to return to the topic on a regular basis to show that chemical engineering is often the unsung hero behind some of today’s sporting icons.

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.

Continue reading Even racing cars need fuel (Day 21)

Food, glorious, food…emulsions (Day 20)

Oil and WaterThey may not call themselves ‘chemical engineers’, but ‘process engineers’, ‘product engineers’, ‘process technologists’ [and a multitude of other job descriptions] are busily working away in the food industry to make the brands we know and love.

Producing tasty, safe, consistent, attractive, stable and value-for-money foods on a large scale is a remarkable achievement. Without those product values and others, glitzy marketing will always fail.

Continue reading Food, glorious, food…emulsions (Day 20)

Where are you now? (Day 19)

MembraneI’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.

Continue reading Where are you now? (Day 19)

Great friends in great places (Day 18)

Honorary Fellowship -MalaysiaIt’s generally well-known that relationships and how we work with our partners and stakeholders is important in the modern business world. Indeed, many organisations in the chemical and process industries have large PR machines and lobbies to represent their interests.

Of course, at IChemE, we do the same, but in a much smaller way. And as president of the Institution of Chemical Engineers it is my pleasure and privilege to represent the profession and meet a great range of people nearly every day.

Continue reading Great friends in great places (Day 18)

Behind every great sportsperson is a chemical engineer (Day 16)

FootballHave you ever considered how much technology contributes to sporting success? Is it possible to succeed without the latest piece of kit to boost your talent? Are there any sports which don’t benefit from technology in some shape or form? Probably not.

I remember a few years ago that Speedo’s swimsuits were banned for the London 2012 Olympics. The polyurethane bodysuits that contributed to an astonishing number of swimming world records over the previous 18 months.

Continue reading Behind every great sportsperson is a chemical engineer (Day 16)

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)

It’s good to talk – join my Webinar (Day 13)

WebinarOn 19 June I’ll be hosting two Webinars to present my presidential address for those of you that were not able to attend the Annual General Meeting on 28 May.

It’s a great chance to find out more about me, my presidential themes and to ask questions.

It would also be great to hear your feedback about my blog, and your suggestions for great chemical engineering stories we can feature later in the year.

If you are based in New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia you may prefer to join this webinar (09:00-10:00 BST).

If you are in the UK and Europe and further West you may find this webinar time more convenient (15:00-16:00 BST).

I hope you’ll be able to join me.