We face a climate crisis and we need a revolution in our processes to make them inherently more sustainable. This challenge is underappreciated. Chemical engineers are key to the solution, due to systems thinking, but we won’t solve this on our own. Engineers must influence policymakers, and bring the engineering mindset to bear more effectively on complex systems, risk and sustainability.
The new energy system will be more complex than currently. It will likely also involve bioscience, which chemical engineers are well-suited to interface with. There will be a huge need for energy storage, which will adopt a range of approaches depending on local conditions. For example, battery storage, in which chemical engineers play significant roles in sourcing materials and ensuring safety.
We also need to act as the ‘conscience’ around the low carbon transition, to influence rational and ethical decisions in the face of commercial and political pressure.
This all requires a collaboration and public communication. It needs better cross-discipline working and perhaps a consolidation of the engineering ‘voice’. Chemical engineering has a lot to share with other disciplines, but also a lot to learn.
We are, rightly, being held to higher safety and environmental standards by the public each year. Public trust is at a very low ebb. People perceive risk as being less tolerable when they have less control over it. We need to help the public to better understand our industries and make them feel they have more control. For example, people need to be educated in what happened at Chernobyl and Fukushima and what the underlying mistakes made were, to make the public more comfortable with nuclear power for the future.
Though we will be adopting new approaches, the underlying physics is not changing and we often already have a good understanding of many components. However, it seems that some new risk identification, assessment and management methodologies need to be developed to address the hazards posed by, say, battery storage. Another area of safety practice that needs further development is how we manage the risk of transient operations. There also needs to be a cultural shift in us all becoming accustomed to thinking the unthinkable, killing-off ‘that will never happen’ thinking and instead starting with a focus on consequence.
The world may be on the cusp of a geopolitical revolution, with globalisation as we previously knew it changing dramatically in character.
In spite of the economic benefits of large scale processing, we will likely see a move toward distributed production to increase security of supply and to reduce the risks associated with bulk storage and transportation of material. Energy production and storage will also be distributed. Small plants will need to adopt inherently safer approaches toward containment.
We will see a moderation of reaction conditions, perhaps leveraging bioscience. Processes need to be radically rethought to make them less energy intensive and more sustainable. There needs to be a holistic consideration of systems, including a much greater deployment of Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), to ensure we don’t create negative impacts somewhere else when solving a problem. Generally, we should be doing much more LCA and there needs to be some consistency of approach, which requires the development of new standards and a standard databank of assumptions. Then we need to act based on this analysis!
There has been explosive development in computing in recent decades. There is a risk that we over-rely on improved control systems and stop paying enough attention to underlying hazards, but there is a potentially huge benefit in terms of providing us with better information to safely and efficiently run our plants. People need to continue to be trained to understand the fundamentals of how their plant operates. There are opportunities for selected digital technologies to have significant benefits, for example augmented reality assisting operators. But we must not lose sight of the importance of human experience.
Rethinking of engineers’ education is needed, to avoid us training people for the past rather than the present and future. Young engineers want to solve the world’s problems, so the profession has an obligation to give them the right tools.
Call to action point one:
The world is facing ecological and geopolitical crises, which demand revolution, not evolution, in our processes. We need to work closely, quickly and intensively with other disciplines to invent and implement new processes to confront these crises.
Call to action point two:
We must ensure that new processes are holistically sustainable and safe. We will face commercial and political pressure at times not to exercise this professional duty.
Call to action point three:
A key role for us is helping others, including the general public and policymakers, to better understand industrial processes and to consider sustainability and risk in a more nuanced way. Public trust is currently very low and the way to confront this is to share more information, giving people the feeling that they have some control.
Call to action point four:
We will need to create new risk assessment and management methodologies to deal with the new technologies, like battery storage, that are being applied ever more widely. We also need to adopt digital technologies, like augmented reality and provision of better data, in a way that helps the human in the system without blinding us to the underlying hazards.
Call to action point five:
We should develop improved and consistent life cycle analysis (LCA) processes and increase the training of young engineers in this valuable tool for the selection of processes. The use of LCA must be increased for the selection and optimisation of processes and systems.