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’.
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.
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
This 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.
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”.
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 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Being 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.
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.
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.
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:
I 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.
When 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.
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.
Outreach is a really important part of being a chemical engineer. Inspiring the next generation of engineers should be a priority for all of us.
Throughout my year as president, I have become more aware of the great outreach initiatives and campaigns run by companies, organisations and universities around the world.
I’m proud to see so many chemical engineers who are enthusiastic about shining a light on our profession.
I recently attended a presentation given by Dr Mark Haw, senior lecturer in chemical and process engineering at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, UK. He talked about a fantastic group of researchers who run nano-themed workshops to engage with schools and the public through ‘Really Small Science‘.
So I have asked Mark to tell us more about their nano-enterprise:
Contamination is a big danger in the food industry. For example, in the US nearly half of all food borne illnesses can be attributed to contamination.
Preventing and controlling bacterial contamination is critical to ensure the food we eat is safe.
The most common strategy to do this is through industrial washing of food in water containing chlorine. However, this is often not effective and there is a need to develop new methods to combat food contamination.
A team of researchers from Wayne State University, US, have found an alternative to conventional methods; by using oregano oil, which is known to have a strong antibacterial effect.
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.
Pollsters 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.
Lithium ion batteries are used in a wide range of applications and technologies. As it happens; if you are reading my blog on a smartphone, laptop or tablet, you are probably holding one right now. From mobile phones to electric cars, Li-ion batteries are all around us, but how do we make sure they are safe?
As I have remarked previously in my blog ‘Bulletproof batteries‘, there are significant safety issues associated with Li-ion batteries. In 2013, a problem with overheating batteries forced airlines to ground their Boeing 787 ‘Dreamliner’ aircraft, after reports of batteries bursting into flames.
The use of Li-ion batteries is becoming more wide-spread. So we need to gain a better understanding of the hazards and risks associated with their use.
The 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.
Most people, in the UK at least, will be familiar with the fairy tale of ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears‘, where Goldilocks, a young girl, seeks out products that are not too strong and not too weak – aiming for ones that are ‘just right’.
This is the aim of chemical engineers who work on the development and delivery of consumer products. There is a strong focus on achieving a consistent outcome that the customer deems to be ‘just right’.
David described how science and engineering are applied to transform household detergents into higher value specialty products. He went on to explain how improved consumer satisfaction is being delivered by creating a washing product that leaves an appealing fragrance on freshly laundered clothes.
David and his team achieved this by creating a product that deposits perfume micro-capsules onto fabric during the wash cycle. The capsules subsequently fracture and release a pleasing odour in controlled doses.
Chemotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses one or more chemical substances to kill cancerous cells. It can be used in conjunction with other cancer treatments, or given alone. But as there are over 100 different chemotherapy drugs, our ability to prescribe the most effective drug to treat a particular tumour can be difficult.
The device, which is about the same size as a grain of rice, is not swallowed or injected, but instead is implanted directly into a cancerous tumour, where it can directly administer small doses of up to 30 different drugs.
We are all heavily reliant on personal computers. At home, at work and on the move. However, we have all experienced the noise and annoyance of the cooling fan in our computers when we push their processing power too hard.
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, 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.
For an individual to excel at chemical engineering, both a good education and personal determination are needed.
Chemical engineering education must be built on a solid foundation in the fundamental principles of chemical engineering science. However, there is a need to constantly review and modernise not just our course content, but the way we deliver it as well.
Maple syrup can render bacteria more vulnerable to antibiotics.
The syrup, which is produced by concentrating the sap from North American maple trees, is a rich source of phenolic compounds with antioxidant properties.
And it is these antioxidant properties that prompted the team, led by Professor Nathalie Tufenkji, investigate the potential of maple syrup.
The team began by removing a concentrated extract from the syrup. They tested this extract on several infection-causing strains of bacteria, including E. coli and Proteus mirabilis (a common cause of urinary tract infection).
The syrup was mildly effective combating the bacteria on its own. However, once mixed with the antibiotics the maple syrup was particularly effective; seemingly synchronising its assault with the pharmaceutical ingredient.
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.
Chemical 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).
Very few discoveries truly revolutionise the way we look at the world.
However, the discovery of the structure of DNA is one of them. And it was on this day in 1953, that the structure of DNA was published in the journal Nature.
This discovery is often seen as controversial, not due to its scientific content, but the fact that the work was largely attributed to one team; Watson and Crick.
This work was published at the same time in a number of papers in Nature by three teams: Watson and Crick; Wilkins, Stokes, and Wilson; and Franklin and Gosling.
The key break through for Watson and Crick’s work came from Rosalind Franklin who studied DNA using X-ray crystallography, but this was largely unacknowledged at the time. In 1962 Crick and Watson, along with Wilkins, received a Nobel Prize for their discovery. Rosalind had died four years earlier so was not eligible for a Nobel Prize.
So to ensure that we celebrate all their work today, I thought I would bring to your attention a recent innovation, which would not have been possible without this major discovery.
The team used synthetically designed shape-shifting molecules which are able to resemble natural DNA bases, but can convert into a different molecular structure by repositioning their hydrogen atoms on nitrogen and oxygen atoms.
I always enjoy reading stories and watching films that are set in the future – often in amazement at the mind-boggling ideas and inventions that are imagined by authors and scriptwriters.
However, I think I’ve spotted a trend. Much of the contemporary science fiction on offer in films and books is decidedly dystopian in its outlook.
This means that it paints a dark vision of the future. Maybe this does science fiction a disservice? I want to be a little more positive and take a look at a few stories that explore the upside of the advances that science and engineering might bring.
A good science fiction story can be short hand for an excellent innovative idea. It might even inspire researchers to try something different.
Looking at this premise from a different angle, let’s examine some notable examples from the genre where science fiction has become science fact.
It’s been a fantastic experience. When I started, I had no idea that my daily diet of chemical engineering good news was going to be read on computers, tablets and smartphones more than 200,000 times, in over 170 countries.
There’s only a month left before #ChemEng365 wraps up. So I think this is a good time to ask you, the reader, what you think should happen with this blog once my term of office is over.
I won’t be spearheading the blog beyond 27 May 2015. After IChemE’s Annual General Meeting, I will be handing over the reins to the legendary team of ‘blog elves’, who have been working hard behind the scenes to support me throughout #ChemEng365.
Please complete this short poll and share your ideas for the future of IChemE’s blogging activity.
In the UK this week, it is Parkinson’s Awareness Week. The aim is to raise awareness of the disease by doing a good deed and tweeting about it using #upyourfriendly.
We can all get involved; just by being nice to the people we meet. You can make new friends and maybe someone’s life a little easier without even knowing it. Check out the campaign to learn more.
With this strategy in mind, I thought I’d raise awareness of the work of some chemical engineers who are definitely ‘up-ing their friendly’ by working behind the scenes to help combat the symptoms of this debilitating disease.
Parkinson’s disease affects one in every 500 people. That’s an estimated 127,000 people in the UK – or around 8.5 million globally.
It is a progressive neurological condition that affects nerve cells in the brain, causing them to die. This results in lower dopamine levels in the body with serious implications for mobility and emotional behaviour.
Process safety is embedded in our profession and is considered in everything we do. Because of this we are always striving towards improvements in process design, process delivery and also in research – something we definitely need to talk more about.
So I was pleased to learn that a group of researchers from Norway, Italy and Canada have investigated a dynamic approach to risk management.
Their particular focus is on metal dust explosions. Dust can present a significant hazard in mining, food processing (eg flour dust) and other industrial settings.