Oil and Gas
The modern oil industry can trace its history back to the 1850s with major discoveries in Azerbaijan and, soon afterwards, in the USA. In the UK, the economy was transformed by discovery of North Sea reserves in the 1960s.
Chemical engineers were at the heart of the production and processing of oil and gas (‘upstream’ activities) and even more so in its refining into various products (‘downstream), especially petroleum, diesel and kerosene. These have transformed our lives by making transport widely available to everyone, by land, sea, and air. They have also gone on to create a range of plastics whilst the commercial production of fertiliser allows millions to be fed. Gas is the mainstay of commercial and domestic heating in many parts of the world.
But whilst oil is at the centre of modern life, its environmental impact is undeniable. Whilst chemical engineers are now driving that transformation towards a cleaner, more sustainable future, decarbonising transport is the most challenging aspect of this. Devising alternative liquid fuels is one route they must exploit. In the meantime, developing cost-effective negative carbon emissions technologies, such as Bioenergy with CCS (BECCS) and Direct Air Capture, to compensate for transport emissions until they are fully decarbonised is a key challenge for chemical engineering.
Crops such as corn (in the USA) and sugar beet (in Brazil) can be used to produce biofuels for use as a blend or even a substitute for petrol in cars. The carbon emitted when these fuels are burned is offset by that absorbed by photosynthesis in the growing of these plants. Chemical engineers must ensure that biofuels can be produced efficiently and at high yields, helping the industry to keep fuel affordable and to minimise its impact on available agricultural land. An integrated systems approach which considers other resource implications, such as water use (see food & water theme), by developing technologies that address issues across the energy-food-water nexus, is a role for which chemical engineers will be uniquely equipped.
Electric vehicles (EVs) are getting more popular by the day. And the cars are getting smarter by the day; we are already seeing the first self-driving (autonomous) vehicles hitting the roads. And that changes whether we want to own personal cars in the future – or just press a button on our smartphones and order our transport when and where we need it.
Chemical engineers are helping to solve the biggest challenges facing EVs: responsibly extracting (and recycling) the metals required, efficiently manufacturing the batteries at large scale, and supporting other scientists to deliver technological advances that can deliver the driving range and operating life that owners expect.
Whilst cars are likely to become EVs, larger vehicles might need an alternative, especially if the size and weight of batteries for long-range heavier vehicles become prohibitive. An alternative is to turn these into zero-emission fuel-cell vehicles (FCVs) powered by hydrogen, stored in tanks as liquid, pressurised gas or alternative modes (such as hydrates or hydrides) that chemical engineers can help develop. Chemical engineers are busy helping deliver ‘blue’ hydrogen (from fossil fuels backed-up by carbon capture and storage) and ‘green’ hydrogen (from electrolysis of water using renewable electricity) and will increasingly support the design of the fuel-cells (especially key membrane components), the equivalent of an engine for a hydrogen vehicle.