Introducing the Energy Theme

The gift of cheap energy

Energy is both a simple and complex part of human life. Most of us take for granted the flick of a light switch or the turn of an engine. These actions are synonymous with daily life and are only noticed when they don't work.

From the burning of wood and coal, and the discovery of oil and nuclear energy, the development of energy has been crucial for prosperity. Advances in medicine and digital technologies – arguably the defining aspects of modern life – have been driven by a seemingly endless supply of cheap energy.

Since the industrial revolution, fossil fuels have reigned. Coal has grown economies and accelerated globalisation, as new steamships connected countries either side of the Atlantic in the late 19th Century. Since the gasification of coal gave us the gift of time by illuminating the night, chemical engineers, together with other engineering colleagues, have been on a path of continuous development.

The race to fuel our insatiable appetite for energy has given the developed world its high standard of living, yet along with a lack of clean water and food, energy poverty is a major driver of global inequality. Political and economic upheavals have been hot on the heels of resource discoveries and our addiction to cheap and constant power has resulted in the biggest challenge facing human kind – climate change.

The story of energy, and its extraction, generation and transportation, is also a story of chemical engineering. For over a century, chemical engineers strove to improve and optimise all aspects of the energy pathway. Importantly, they are also a key part of a clean energy future.

The rise and fall of black gold

As coal defined the 19th Century, it was oil that defined the 20th and shaped the modern world, technologically and geo-politically. While the industrial revolution was powered by coal-generated steam, whale oil, a rapidly diminishing resource, lubricated the machinery.

The discovery of black oil in the USA led to the industrialisation of what was previously an agricultural economy. Oil underpinned a burgeoning automobile industry and led to a change in the world order. America was becoming a political superpower. Investment in oil reserves and refineries expanded - designed, built, and managed by chemical engineers.

Industry, economies and chemical engineering expertise expanded across the world as oil reserves were discovered and exploited at an accelerating pace during the second half of the 20th Century. However, the sharp increase in temperatures in the early 1980s placed global warming in the spotlight, with many experts pointing to 1988 as a critical turning point. In 1989, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established under the United Nations to provide a scientific view of climate change and its political and economic impacts. The impact of fossil fuels and their contribution to increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere could not be ignored.

Weaning a world off coal and oil

The oil crisis showed how dependent the world had become on oil.  As well as fuel and lubricants, it was the basis for an expanding industry of plastics, synthetic fibres, and many thousands of chemical products. 

As we needed alternative sources of energy, natural gas became the new lifeline.

Natural gas projects have since become the largest investments made by commercial companies. The success of these investments relies heavily on the expertise and creativity of chemical engineers. Through developments in generation and distribution, gas became a low-cost fuel.

Hydrogen energy, an important part of many climate change policies, will likely be part of the future energy mix. At present, hydrogen is largely made by reforming natural gas, a process that emits significant CO2, which would have to be captured to be considered a green fuel. Researchers worldwide, including chemical engineers, are racing to develop clean and economical hydrogen via electrolysis of water, but this needs technology improvements to lower costs and improve the energy efficiency of the process.

Nuclear energy, by no means a new kid on the energy block, sits awkwardly as an alternative fuel. While providing good options to reduce our CO2 footprint, the merits, safety and economic virtues of nuclear energy are complicated and divisive. Debates on its place in a future energy matrix quickly turn to economic feasibility, risk and waste management issues. Nevertheless, the advancement in reactor types, the promise of nuclear fusion, and the ongoing development of chemical engineering expertise (for example isotope separation, fuel reprocessing, waste management, feed material preparation, fuel chemistry, and effluent control) mean that nuclear power should not be written out of the energy story yet.

Beyond carbon

Renewable energy, including solar, wind and biofuel abound. These technologies have existed in some form for decades now, and although their efficiency, and therefore economic viability, has drastically increased, these new energy sources are yet to fill the fossil fuel gap. The scientists, engineers, including chemical engineers, and industries working to optimise and advance these technologies carry the weight of global expectation and hope of a global community desperate to win the race of rising temperatures, while balancing economic growth.

Biofuels have the potential to bring us clean energy, although the land mass required for crops is staggering and has its own large footprint. Biogas, from the gasification of forest waste, is currently one of the largest single sources of biogas projected by the European Union for 2050 to replace natural gas in our gas distribution systems. However, inherent in biogas are many challenges that will require the expertise and problem-solving abilities of the next generation of chemical engineers. Can gasifiers handle this material? Can the resulting biogas be cleaned and piped to the current gas grid? Is the capital cost of all this acceptable?

The focus on a clean energy future is naturally centred on how we can fuel our cars, houses, cities and so on. But it is important to note that energy is also vital to production in every industry, including less obvious applications, for example, the production of industrial and medical gases. Fortunately, chemical engineers have been working on techniques to achieve this separation with renewable energy.

As we race towards carbon neutrality by 2050 or sooner, chemical engineering will continue to play a crucial role in the energy pipeline. Pivoting to new energies will require interdisciplinary collaboration among practitioners, researchers and end users. Happily, over the last 100 years the profession has continually proven itself up to this task. With some optimism we can hope that the next 100 years of chemical engineering will have proven to be equally effectual.