Chemical Engineering Matters

Report from U.K. professional society addresses areas where engineers could make an impact.

By Sean Ottewell, Editor at Large

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The Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), Rugby, U.K., has published a new report, “Chemical Engineering Matters,” which identifies four priority areas where chemical engineers can make a positive impact: energy, food and nutrition, water, and health and wellbeing.

The absence of visible historical heroes has confined the discipline to relative obscurity.


The report is a much-needed update of the Institution’s 2007 technical strategy, according to IChemE director of policy and communications Andrew Furlong. “The original document was seen as too restricting. The 20 position statements that it contained are still valid, and IChemE will still work in order to deliver against those propositions, but the original roadmap took some criticism because its didn’t focus strongly enough on wealth creation and it didn’t really take into account external matters,” he explains.

“Chemical Engineering Matters,” Furlong says, is more about what chemical engineers can actually do.

In addition to the four priority areas, the report describes IChemE’s current thinking in three fundamental underpinning areas: safety and risk, education and training, and research and development. The report also discusses external influences that shape the environment in which today’s chemical engineer must operate.

The document ends with key conclusions and a set of ten specific actions for IChemE’s leadership and staff team to pursue. They are:

Safety. The organization says it’s committed to initiating a new international qualification for process safety professions.

Talent. IChemE aims to keep talent flowing via a constant review of its course accreditation guidelines.

Research. The institution will  place priority on encouraging multidisciplinary work and the effective exchange of knowledge and ideas between the research base and teaching.

Energy.  IChemE says it will argue for robust lifecycle analysis and promotion of the fullest understanding of thermodynamics for all proposed solutions — from carbon management to wave power.

Water. The organization believes the chemical engineer’s role in delivering sustainable solutions has been underplayed. In response, IChemE says it will provide additional support to chemical engineers in the water community to explore new ways of promoting process technology.

Food and nutrition. The institution expects to exert significant influence over the development of processes and technologies that can reduce waste and optimize food supply.

Health and wellbeing. IChemE says it will do more to highlight the impact of the discipline in both the bioscience and pharma sectors.

Politics. The politically neutral organization claims it will work with constituent member groups and local leaderships around the world to develop coherent policy goals that will form the basis of engagement with opinion-formers and policy-makers.

Economics. Here, the IChemE will continue to highlight the role of chemical engineers in improving process efficiency and reducing costs for the worldwide, $3 trillion downstream chemical industry.

Public understanding.
The report notes that over the last 30 years public mood swings have driven a tendency amongst scientists to retreat into their laboratories. Meanwhile, it says, engineers of all descriptions have never really excelled at promoting their efforts and explaining their work’s value to the person in the street. Chemical engineers have found themselves in a particularly difficult place. The absence of historical heroes with the visibility of Brunel, Faraday or Watt has confined the discipline to relative obscurity: “Given the upstream nature that characterizes much of the chemical engineer’s work, it is hardly surprising that public polling carried out by IChemE has consistently revealed that it is generally unclear, even to the educated observer, exactly what chemical engineering is all about. IChemE members frequently express dismay at this state of affairs because, as this report clearly illustrates, chemical engineering is fundamental to progress in the key challenge areas of energy, water, food and nutrition, and health and wellbeing,” notes the report.

In effort to rise to this challenge, the IChemE is encouraging members to engage productively in public conversation about the impact of chemical processes and products. The institution will work with science media centers and other non-governmental organizations to address the disconnect between lifestyle commentary and chemical realities.

“This is not just a document that will sit on our desks,” says IChemE CEO David Brown. “It will guide policy development and how we plan our work for the future. Chemical engineers have a long history of action. They are innovators who have brought numerous benefits to society from pharmaceutical developments such as the scaling up of penicillin to the production of high-power rechargeable batteries that are used in many of our devices from mobile phones to laptops.”

The full report can be downloaded from the IChemE’s website at www.icheme.org/media_centre/chemical-engineering-matters.aspx.

 



SEÁN OTTEWELL is Chemical Processing's Editor at Large. You can e-mail him at sottewell@putman.net.

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