Four horsemen of the apocalypse – four challenges for chemical engineers (Day 362)

Day 362, four blogs to go. Four more opportunities to highlight chemical engineering in action.

In the Christian tradition, the four horsemen of the apocalypse are the harbingers of the end of the world.

Other faiths offer different views, but for the purposes of this blog post I’m taking a look at four big challenges that present a serious threat to life on earth: water scarcity; increasing energy demand; food security; and climate change. What are chemical  engineers doing to tackle these issues and avert the apocalypse?

perfect stormI have previously observed that we run the risk of sleep-walking towards climate catastrophe. But it’s more complicated than that. The water, energy, food and climate change challenges are interrelated. The former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government, Sir John Beddington, used the term Perfect Storm to describe this phenomenon arguing that climate change will intensify pressure on resources further, adding to the vulnerability of both ecosystems and people.

Chemical engineering can provide shelter from John’s ‘Perfect storm’.  Here are some examples.

Continue reading Four horsemen of the apocalypse – four challenges for chemical engineers (Day 362)

Five projects that raise the profile of chemical engineering (Day 361)

Day 361 – five days and counting.

During my year as novice blogger, I’ve been made aware of many excellent projects involving outreach that raise the profile of our profession to the public, and in particular, to school children.

This blog post highlights five initiatives that will inspire a new generation of chemical engineers, as well as promoting the value of engineering to a wider audience:

1. Pint of Science

pint of science beer mat
Pint of Science beer mats

The Pint of Science festival is an annual event, held over three days, that takes place in pubs across the world. During the festival, researchers and experts in their field discuss their latest scientific work over a drink. Pint of Science has grown year on year since its inception in 2012 by two research scientists, Michael Motskin and Praveen Paul, at Imperial College London, UK.

This year I was invited to take part – and in return I was promised a free pint!  Well how could I refuse?  I’m a big fan of science communication and public engagement – the free pint had nothing to do with it!

Continue reading Five projects that raise the profile of chemical engineering (Day 361)

Six continents but why don’t penguins read my blog? (Day 360)

Day 360, six days of blogging to go.

Prior to starting this blog I had already attracted a reputation as a keen advocate for the positive benefits of chemical engineering; perhaps as a result of my media appearances following the Deepwater Horizon incident in 2010. My interventions were driven by a desire to react positively to what was clearly very bad news.

I wanted to use my presidency to do something more proactive. I wanted to find a way of shining a light on some chemical engineering good news on a daily basis, but I wasn’t entirely sure how to go about it – until I was told, “Get blogging Geoff!”

Once I’d figured out what blogging entailed, the idea started to take shape. A pipeline of stories was developed and ChemEng365 was born.

360 days later, I have been amazed at the extent of the readership that the blog has attracted. Here are some numbers for you:

The blog has been viewed more than 250,000 times by over 75,000 people in 180 countries. The top five countries, in terms of readership, will not come as a surprise: UK; US; India; Malaysia; and Australia. This is broadly in line with IChemE’s membership and the extent of chemical engineering activity around the world.

Readership of the #ChemEng365 blog
Heat map illustrating the global readership of the ChemEng365 blog

The list of countries where I have gathered just a single follower is far more exotic; the blog has been read in Aruba, Curacao, the Faeroe Islands and New Caledonia to name just a few of the far flung territories that have popped up in the analytics.

ChemEng365 has a following in six continents: Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Europe and Australasia. But there are seven continents in total – Antarctica is missing?

This begs the question: ‘Why don’t penguins read my blog?‘ Maybe it’s because their flippers are too big for a computer keyboard! Or maybe it’s because I haven’t blogged about Antarctica just yet.

Here are my favourite blog stories from six continents:

Continue reading Six continents but why don’t penguins read my blog? (Day 360)

Seven Harry Potter spells – it’s not magic it’s chemical engineering (Day 359)

Today is Day 359, and there are just seven days left to shine a light on chemical engineering. So I thought I would try something a little different by highlighting seven Harry Potter ‘spells’ that are all in a day’s work for chemical engineers.

Most people enjoy a little magic, whether that involves reading fantasy fiction, watching a magical movie or even practising a little magic at family gatherings with the words ‘pick a card, any card’.

Credit | mashable.com
Credit | mashable.com

One of the most popular fantasy offerings in a generation is Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, the epic tale of a boy wizard and his quest to defeat the evil Lord Voldemort.

Harry’s exploits along with his friends at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry have captured the imagination of millions of readers and film-goers around the world.

As a chemical engineer and covert Harry Potter admirer, I thought I would combine the two (with a little help from the mischievous blog elves) and highlight the science and engineering behind seven – the most powerful magical number – spells and potions from the wizarding world:

1. Essence of dittany

You may remember the use of this potion from the final instalment of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, as Ron Weasley ‘splinched’ his arm after ‘disapparating’ to escape the grips of a Death Eater (follower of Lord Voldemort). Essence of dittany, from a plant that produces a healing and restorative properties, and was applied to treat Ron’s injuries – instantly.

Continue reading Seven Harry Potter spells – it’s not magic it’s chemical engineering (Day 359)

Eight ways to demystify chemical engineering (Day 358)

Today is Day 358, and there are just eight days left to shine a light on chemical engineering. One of the driving motives behind this blog has been to find ways to make chemical engineering more accessible to a wider audience.

We sometimes struggle when we have to explain our work to non-chemical engineering friends and family.  But I think I know how to do this and over the years I have found a variety of useful examples to help get the point across.

Here are my eight simple ways to demystify chemical engineering to your friends and family:

1. Turn the lights off

light switchThis is probably the easiest way to demonstrate the power (if you’ll excuse the pun) of chemical engineering. So much of the work we do goes to provide electricity supplies for homes and business worldwide. Without chemical engineering, our lives would be much harder and a lot darker. Turn out the lights and challenge your audience to switch them on again without gas, oil, coal, nuclear or renewable power and a lot of chemical engineering.

Continue reading Eight ways to demystify chemical engineering (Day 358)

Nine ways chemical engineering makes a difference (Day 357)

Today is Day 357, meaning there are just nine days left to shine a light on chemical engineering. I thought today would be a good opportunity for me to select my nine favourite reasons why chemical engineering matters.

I really enjoyed the whiteboard messages that were written at the ChemEngDayUK 2015 conference held earlier this year in Sheffield, so I have chosen my favourite ‘I make a difference’ snapshots to share with you today.

Here are the nine people who use chemical engineering to make a difference:

1. Jon from the University of Bath who makes a difference “by providing safe water to developing countries”.

Jon from the University of Bath
Jon from the University of Bath

Continue reading Nine ways chemical engineering makes a difference (Day 357)

Ten chemical engineers that shaped our world (Day 356)

Today is Day 356, meaning there are just ten days left to shine a light on chemical engineering. So I thought I would take the opportunity to countdown some important facts and stories from the wonderful world of chemical engineering in the ten days remaining before the end of ChemEng365.

I’m starting with ten chemical engineers who have truly inspired the chemical engineering community, used their skills to shape the world we live in and improved quality of life for all.

1. George E Davis

George E Davis
Photo Credit | IChemE
George E Davis

George E Davis is often regarded as the ‘founding father’ of chemical engineering, No list of chemical engineers is complete without him. George shaped the world of chemical engineering as it emerged in the late 1800s; with George coining the term ‘chemical engineering’. The first chemical engineering course was delivered by George at the University of Manchester in 1887 in the form of 12 lectures covering various aspects of industrial chemical practice – this kick started the revolution that spawned generations of world-changing chemical engineers.

Continue reading Ten chemical engineers that shaped our world (Day 356)

CCS equals ‘Carbon Capture and Students’ (Day 355)

As regular readers will recognise, I am based at Imperial College London and today, I want to describe some of the work that goes on here.

The Carbon Capture Pilot Plant
Photo Credit | Imperial College London
The Carbon Capture Pilot Plant

I am the Professor of Energy Engineering, in the Department of Chemical Engineering, and much of my research is now built around carbon capture and storage (CCS). I’d like to tell you a little more about the work on carbon capture here at Imperial, with particular focus on our carbon capture pilot plant.

The carbon capture pilot plant is so big that it stretches over four floors of our building, right at its centre – which is pretty impressive for a university pilot plant and helps provide a sense of scale for the real thing.

The pilot plant provides our students with an opportunity to grapple with some of the practical challenges that they will encounter in industry. It certainly presents the opportunity to hone a few of the skills that might prove useful in the  future.

Continue reading CCS equals ‘Carbon Capture and Students’ (Day 355)

Shining a UV light to separate rare earth metals (Day 354)

There are 17 rare earth metals in the periodic table, but they are not ‘rare’ because of a lack of abundance – they are rare because they are usually found dispersed in small amounts.

Photo Credit | periodictable.com
Photo Credit | periodictable.com

These rare earth metals find use in many modern day applications ranging from healthcare and electronics, to computers and advanced transportation. Two rare earth metals that are particularly useful in sustainable technology and high-tech applications – europium and yttrium.

Europium and yttrium are difficult to mine but they can be recycled and recovered from another source – red lamp phosphor (a powder used in fluorescent lamps and low energy light bulbs).

Chemical engineers from the University of Leuven (KE Leuven), Belgium, have developed a method that recycles the red lamp phosphor as well as separates the rare earth metals, europium and yttrium, from a mixture using UV light.

Continue reading Shining a UV light to separate rare earth metals (Day 354)

The wisdom of Trevor Kletz – the ‘founding father’ of inherent safety (Day 353)

Trevor Kletz
Photo Credit | tce
Trevor Kletz

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.

Continue reading The wisdom of Trevor Kletz – the ‘founding father’ of inherent safety (Day 353)

Planning for the future – say YES (Day 352)

Throughout my blog, I have highlighted some important chemical engineering innovations.  I wanted to shine a light on the valuable contribution that my profession makes to the world around us.

Some of the most important work that we do isn’t just using our technical knowledge; it’s talking to the next generation of chemical engineers and sharing that knowledge.

My first work experience of industrial chemistry and engineering, a summer job at Podmore and Sons pottery in Stoke-on-Trent, UK, sparked an interest that shaped my future career.

Amec Foster Wheeler LogoBeing exposed to different careers can give a taster for chemical engineering. These experiences can spark excitement and interest that can grow into a fruitful career.

With this in mind, IChemE is proud to support an initiative run by Amec Foster Wheeler. The Amec Foster Wheeler Young Engineers Scheme (YES) has been developed by the company’s engineering teams in Reading, UK, to encourage student involvement in engineering.

Continue reading Planning for the future – say YES (Day 352)

A breath of fresh air (Day 351)

Chemical engineering has to be one of the most creative of all professions. We look for opportunities in everything, even in the air that surrounds us.

In the early 20th century, Carl von Linde pioneered the process of air separation, splitting air into its pure components. He developed a technique to obtain pure oxygen and nitrogen by means of fractional distillation from liquefied air.

Since then, air separation has been applied to many products we use every day. In February, I attended an IChemE event at the University of Surrey. During the event, I met Jama Salimov, an Advanced Process Control Engineer at Air Products. Jama was keen to shine a light on his work in air separation and ensure that we all understand its many applications.

liquid nitrogen
Liquid Nitrogen

Air separation typically separates air into its primary components – nitrogen and oxygen. However, it can also isolate some of the more rare parts of the air such as argon.

The products of air separation have a wide variety of uses in our everyday lives. Many of us use them without even realising it – and Jama was keen to tell me all about them.

Continue reading A breath of fresh air (Day 351)

The life of a Brewer (Day 350)

I was so impressed with today’s guest blogger’s recent webinar (arranged by IChemE’s Food and Drink SIG) I got in touch with him to ask about his work and why he became a chemical engineer. Thomas Brewer works in the food industry for SABMiller as an engineering consultant.

He has had an interesting career path, so I’ll let him explain it in more detail:


Tom BrewerName: Thomas Brewer
Job: Engineering Consultant
Course: Chemical engineering (MEng), University of Cambridge
Graduated: 1998
Employer: SABMiller

 

Quote startI am perhaps unusual amongst our profession as I knew from a very early age that I wanted to be a chemical engineer. At about the age of 11, I was becoming more aware of the world around me and noted the science articles about Brazil, the oil crisis and biofuels in newspapers. I decided chemical engineering would help me be a part of the solution and give me an opportunity to make an impact.

If asked what today’s big challenges are, I would say we already recognise the issues around water and energy and we are going to have to deal with protein. Every day our society downgrades or throws away protein, we need to get better at valuing it for what it is.

Continue reading The life of a Brewer (Day 350)

You don’t have to practise chemical engineering to be a chemical engineer (Day 349)

Throughout this blog, I have made a conscious effort to promote career options for chemical engineers (see my blog ‘Ten job titles of chemical engineers… and what they actually mean‘). But many chemical engineers do not work as chemical engineers, so today I thought I would highlight some alternative careers.

Great jobWhen I speak to chemical engineers, there is lots of discussion about the sectors they work in: energy; water; food; pharma and more.

However, I often hear people saying that the big issue in the professional science and engineering community is retention of people.

In the UK, the phrase ‘leaky pipeline’ has been used to describe science and engineering graduates that leave their fields to pursue careers in other areas – the finger is normally pointed at finance or investment banking.

But I don’t see this as problem, because you don’t have to practise chemical engineering to be a chemical engineer. I am pleased that other professions actively seek to recruit chemical engineers – because of the skills they have (see my blog ‘Ten skills chemical engineers should be talking about‘) and the calibre of our chemical engineering graduates.

Continue reading You don’t have to practise chemical engineering to be a chemical engineer (Day 349)

Making squishy robots (Day 348)

green robotsWhen I think of ways to describe robots I might use words like advanced, intelligent, practical, metallic… but never squishy!

However, today’s story comes from a team of chemical engineers who are working to create squishy robots by designing a synthetic gel.

The team, from the University of Pittsburgh‘s Swanson School of Engineering, US, have developed a computational model which has allowed them to design a new material. The material has the ability reconfigure its shape and move using its own internally generated power. This ability to change was seen as a catalyst for the development of a soft robot.

This research, undertaken by Dr Anna C. Balazs, Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering and Dr Olga Kuksenok, Research Associate Professor, uses a single-celled organism, Euglena mutabilis, as a model. E. mutabilis is able to process energy to expand and contract its shape. This results in movement.

Continue reading Making squishy robots (Day 348)

Engaging the public through Really Small Science (Day 347)

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.

really small science 2Throughout 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:


mark_haw
Name
Dr Mark Haw
Job:
Senior lecturer in chemical and process engineering
Course: PhD Colloidal Physics, University of Edinburgh, UK
Employer: University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK

 

Quote startWe started ‘Really Small Science‘ with funding from the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2013. The original project was to run a four day event at the Glasgow Science Centre.

Continue reading Engaging the public through Really Small Science (Day 347)

Using oregano as an antibacterial agent (Day 346)

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.

oil with oregano leafThe 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.

Continue reading Using oregano as an antibacterial agent (Day 346)

Make your voice heard – vote! (Day 345)

If you are reading this in the UK – still home to around half of IChemE’s members – I’m sure you are aware that a General Election is taking place today.

IChemE is politically neutral and it adopts an independent position on issues that are viewed as partisan. However, the institution believes that political decisions should be evidence-based and supported by the strongest possible input from the engineering community. That’s why it’s important to engage with politicians and to express a view.

So for today’s blog post, I’ve asked IChemE CEO, Dr David Brown, to share his thoughts on the need for chemical engineers to influence policymakers, not only in the UK but around the world.

I’ll let David take it from here:


David Brown

Name: Dr David Brown
Job: CEO
Course: Natural  Sciences, University of Cambridge
Graduated: MA 1978, PhD 1982
Employer: IChemE

 

Quote startPollsters are predicting that this UK general election will be one of the closest in living memory. In the latest edition of tce (May 2015) I set out my election wish-list for the new UK government covering areas such as education, immigration and climate change.

Whatever the outcome of the election, the government that emerges will undoubtedly have an impact on many areas of the UK economy that rely on chemical and process engineers.

That’s why we need to engage in debates on public policy issues.

Continue reading Make your voice heard – vote! (Day 345)

Improving battery design by blowing them up (Day 344)

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
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.

That’s why a research group led by chemical engineers from University College London (UCL) UK, with the European Synchrotron (ESRF), Imperial College London and the National Physical Laboratory, have been working to figure out what happens to Li-ion batteries when they overheat and explode.

Continue reading Improving battery design by blowing them up (Day 344)

Solar sanitation solutions (Day 343)

ToiletThe World Health Organization (WHO) reports that  as many as 2.5 billion people around the world do not have access to adequate toilet facilities.

Poor sanitation results in contaminated drinking water and the spread of infectious diseases including Cholera and Dysentery, which cause severe diarrhoea, dehydration and if left untreated, death (see my blog, ‘Everyone should have a human right to water’).

Every year, around 1.5 million people – mostly children under five years old – die from diarrhoea. Drastic action is needed in order to make safe sanitation accessible to all.

Only last week, I observed that we sometimes have a tendency to take things for granted in the developed world. My blog, ‘Chemical engineer develops sanitary towels to help girls stay in school’ was well received and has prompted me to look at some other work by chemical engineers who are making a difference in the developing world.

Continue reading Solar sanitation solutions (Day 343)

Creating products to Goldilocks’ standard (Day 342)

goldilocksMost 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’.

I recently attended a talk given by Professor David York, Chair of Structured Particulate Products, from the University of Leeds, UK, on how to convert commodities into high value components.

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.

Continue reading Creating products to Goldilocks’ standard (Day 342)

Putting the lab into the patient to improve chemotherapy success (Day 341)

The fight against cancer is ongoing and I have blogged about this before; see ‘Twin track cancer attack’ and ‘Fighting lung cancer with personalised medicine’. Each new discovery we make shines more light onto effective treatments.

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.

MIT chemical engineers have designed an implantable device that can deliver many drugs at once, allowing researchers to determine which drugs are the most effective against a patient's tumor.
Picture Credit | MIT
MIT chemical engineers have designed an implantable device that can deliver many drugs at once, allowing researchers to determine which drugs are the most effective against a patient’s tumor.

A new device, developed by chemical engineers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), US, could provide a solution.

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.

 

Continue reading Putting the lab into the patient to improve chemotherapy success (Day 341)

Super cooling computers could save billions (Day 340)

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.

A team of chemical engineers from the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), US, have come up with a solution – ditch the fan altogether.

The cooling computer
Photo Credit | UAH
The cooling computer

Now obviously, their solution is not as simple as that; they have also developed technology that keeps computer chips cooler.

The team also estimates that the adoption of this technology could save US consumers more than US $6.3 billion a year by reducing the energy used in computer cooling fans.

Continue reading Super cooling computers could save billions (Day 340)

Training the next generation of chemical engineers (Day 339)

I think I may be a little unusual amongst chemical engineering professors in that I started out in academia, before switching to a career in industry and then switching back again. I recounted the story in my presidential address: Chemical engineering matters everywhere – reflections on a journey from academe to industry, and back again

Based on these experiences, I am always keen to initiate and promote new relationships between industry and academia.

However, I am by no means alone in valuing the importance of such relationships.

Delegates who attended ChemEngDayUK2015 in Sheffield, UK last month, heard from a range of industry speakers.  The main conference sponsor was the German industrial conglomerate Siemens.

Sean McDonagh
Photo Credit | Siemens
Sean McDonagh

Sean McDonagh, who leads the chemicals team for Siemens Digital Factory Process Industries & Drives, gave a very insightful contribution during the opening session.  I caught up with him shortly afterwards and he told me about one of Siemens’ latest projects –  which focuses on strengthening those all important links between industry and academia.

Last year’s ChemEngDayUK, hosted by the University of Manchester, saw the official opening of a new pilot plant situated within the James Chadwick Building. The plant features Siemens’ distributed control system’. It is designed to help students learn about advanced process automation.

Continue reading Training the next generation of chemical engineers (Day 339)

3D printing a space rocket (Day 338)

Regular readers of my blog will know that I have shared many chemical engineering good news stories about space: the final frontier.

From chemical engineers who also happen to be astronauts (see my blog ‘A path to the stars‘) to chemical engineers developing technology to power a lunar space mission with poo, and even chemical engineers who have created a template for extra-terrestrial life. It’s clear to see that chemical engineering is not limited to just planet Earth.

space rocket3D printing has also featured substantially throughout #ChemEng365. Whilst not synonymous with the chemical and process industries, I have still shared chemical engineering stories on ‘Deep sea printers‘, ‘The affordable kidney‘ and ‘Breakthrough in 3D printing inspired by the Terminator‘.

So you can imagine my delight when I happened across a piece of news that combined space exploration and 3D printing. Researchers at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Ohio, US, have successfully printed a space rocket engine part that can function at both extremely high and low temperatures.

Continue reading 3D printing a space rocket (Day 338)

Using podcasts to achieve educational excellence in South Africa (Day 337)

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.

Chemical engineering students
Photo Credit | UCT
Chemical engineering students

The Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Cape Town (UCT), South Africa, has a research group dedicated to engineering education. This group contributes to a wider collaboration in the Centre for Research in Engineering and Science Education (CREE).

At UCT, there is a passion to provide the best possible foundation for young chemical engineers.

Continue reading Using podcasts to achieve educational excellence in South Africa (Day 337)

Maple syrup magnifies antibiotic attack (Day 336)

maple syrupMost of the time, maple syrup is deliciously sloshed all over our pancakes.

However, a group of researchers at the Department of Chemical Engineering at McGill University, Canada (rather fitting given Canada’s love of the sticky stuff), have discovered another use for it.

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.

Continue reading Maple syrup magnifies antibiotic attack (Day 336)

Chemical engineer develops sanitary towels to help girls stay in school (Day 335)

Here in the UK and other developed countries, it’s all too easy to take some things for granted, such as access to education, to clean water and to sanitary facilities.

When we look at the developing world, it can be difficult to comprehend the challenges people face on a daily basis.

Photo Credit | Anton_Ivanov / Shutterstock.com
Photo Credit | Anton_Ivanov / Shutterstock.com

In Ethiopia, as many as 18 million young girls and women have no access to sanitary towels. This forces many young girls to drop out of school. But the good news is that one chemical engineer is trying to change that.

For most girls, their first menstrual cycle is awkward and embarrassing, but seen as a natural transition towards womanhood. However, in Ethiopia it can be an incredibly taboo subject. As a consequence, misinformation, negative beliefs and myths hold sway.

In the rural Tigray region of Ethiopia, where chemical engineer Freweini Mebrahtu grew up, young girls found out about their menstrual cycle through overheard rumour and myth; often leaving them shocked, confused and afraid.

Continue reading Chemical engineer develops sanitary towels to help girls stay in school (Day 335)

A teacher worthy of Frank Morton’s mantle (Day 334)

What does it take to be a good teacher?

FM medalChemical engineering professor Frank Morton had some very good ideas – perhaps because he left school aged 14 and worked his way through night school and then university to achieve global recognition for his dedication to future generations of chemical engineers.

Frank was also distinguished by his care for the sporting and social side of his students’ lives (see my blog ‘Work hard, play hard‘ for the 2015 Frank Morton sports day).

So, sharing this dual perspective, Professor Redhouane Henda of Laurentian University in Ontario, Canada, is a very worthy winner of the 2014 Frank Morton Medal for excellence in chemical engineering education.

I’m sure we all remember good teachers on our way to becoming chemical engineers.

Continue reading A teacher worthy of Frank Morton’s mantle (Day 334)

Sneaky shape-shifting molecule mimics DNA to trick viruses (Day 333)

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.

dnaThis 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.

A team of scientists and engineers from the University of Chicago (UChicago) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), US, have developed a new spectroscopy method that could prove useful in developing the next generation of anti-viral treatments.

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.

Continue reading Sneaky shape-shifting molecule mimics DNA to trick viruses (Day 333)

Ten ways chemical engineering has changed science fiction into fact (Day 332)

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.

fractal cityHowever, 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.

Here’s my top ten:

Continue reading Ten ways chemical engineering has changed science fiction into fact (Day 332)