Without question, chemical engineers have played a central role in enabling the high standards of living, from the development of cheap energy and new materials through to improving access to clean water, facilitating intensive agriculture and the production of bulk pharmaceuticals. However not everyone has benefited, with just under one billion people still suffering energy poverty, and millions without access to clean water, sufficient nutrition, or basic medicines.
Reducing carbon emissions to mitigate the impacts of climate change in combination with enabling circular economy principals embody the technological, social and moral challenges of our time. The creativity and innovation of chemical engineers will be essential to address these challenges for a sustainable future and the defining legacy of the next generation of engineers.
Chemical engineers are leading the way with solutions to address climate change such as carbon sequestration and carbon capture and utilization and are implementing sustainable practices through process design to reduce energy and water consumption and retrofit circular model solutions to existing processes. For example, chemical engineering is improving food supply and food security through innovative processing, increasing food longevity and developing alternatives to animal proteins. Renewable energy technologies will support the transition from fossil fuels and new technologies will lead to fossil free chemical feedstocks.
Chemical engineering researchers are also investigating new technical frontiers. Synthetic biology, for example, is being explored to genetically modify an organism for the manufacture of new types of chemicals and applied to grow modified yeasts into a range of exotic materials, such as armor for tanks.
Chemical engineers are developing processes to manufacture proteins like RNA for semi-continuous and modularized manufacturing of precision medicines, employing microbial systems driven by individual genomic mapping. These can deliver regulated medicines at low costs to remote and undeveloped regions.
Increasing use of data, analytics, machine learning and AI mathematics will combine to build a data driven digital twin of chemistry problems, providing better predictive ability around complex operations like precipitation and mixing. This will change how chemical engineers design, build, operate and maintain these plants, while optimizing energy, water and resource use.
Chemical Engineering is at the forefront of the challenge to develop storage technologies for renewable energy, through the manufacture and storage of intermediate chemicals including hydrogen or green hydrocarbons or similar chemicals.
The world’s growing cities will be made sustainable through the work of chemical engineers in collaborating with architects for climate appropriate buildings and transportation networks, and climate independent and resilient water and wastewater systems.
Chemical engineering education will include new subjects including artificial intelligence, physics, biotechnology, and molecular biology as new technological frontiers become increasingly important.
A new century and a new set of social expectations
The last 20 years has seen a slow but sustained shift in the global mindset to the way we think about the footprint of humanity. The changes needed to reduce this footprint, while maintaining health, longevity and prosperity on a global scale brings a level of complexity that is almost unimaginable, while bridging the gap for developing countries for access to water, energy and other resources.
These challenges will not be solved with technology alone. A cultural shift in the way we think, our expectations, and the dynamics of business and government also need to change. Engineers need to not just innovate and develop the technologies demanded to face global challenges, but also consider strategies to shift the significant resistance from incumbent systems and the established political, cultural, and institutional barriers to change.
Chemical engineers will need to become excellent communicators and recognize that the dynamics of change lies at the intersection of business, government and society.
Chemical Engineers are up for the challenge, being trained not only to identify problems but are trained to provide solutions. This should be an incredibly exciting time.
From now to 2100, Chemical Engineers must play a central role again, to rapidly transition the world from fossil fuels to abundant and affordable alternative energy for all and to ensure that no one is left behind. The quality of life of future generations depends on the ability of chemical engineers to address these challenges, for a sustainable world.
This is the opportunity for chemical engineers - to combine their unquestionable technical prowess with a compelling narrative on the need for a new way, to lead the world forward to 2100.
Social Experience Blog
Read this blog from IChemE member Dr Marlene Kanga who picks out her choices of elements to celebrate, communicate and inspire from this theme.