Historically, chemical engineers were at the heart of the extraction, refining and distribution of these fossil fuels. But just as the stone age did not end because we ran out of stone, our dependence on oil and gas will end not because of dwindling reserves but be driven by avoiding catastrophic climate change, moderated by geo-politics and energy security aspirations.
As concerns for the environment increase, chemical engineers are leading the way in the energy transition towards global net-zero emissions by 2050 at the latest. Chemical engineering has a crucial role to play in weaning the world off fossil fuels in the next 30 years, addressing the challenges of creating a carbon capture and storage industry as big as current oil and gas, decarbonisation of all industrial processes and the transformation of chemical manufacturing to zero carbon with the changes of feedstocks and new catalysts and processes that will demand.
Renewable energy and the hydrogen economy
The world is rapidly shifting towards renewable energy but there is still a long way to go. The UK already generates around 40% of its electricity from renewables, but this leads to a growing challenge: what to do when the wind does not blow, or the sun is not shining? Chemical engineers are set to play a vital role in helping intermittent renewables fulfil their potential by producing ways of storing energy so it can be used when and where we need it. Key to that is the hydrogen economy, where green electricity can be used to generate storable hydrogen gas which we can use to generate power, heat our homes, and even run our cars. Applying (systems) chemical engineering principles to the development and effective management of renewable systems and feedstocks, including stewardship of the rare earth and other metals and minerals required for the batteries, fuel cells and electronic devices that will underpin this new renewable, digital society. Sustainability of the earth’s resources is not a given, even as and when we cease to exploit hydrocarbons, as we start to use many other elements to serve our society.
Chemical engineering forms a major part of nuclear energy, from the refining of fuel for atomic reactors to the treatment and disposal of spent waste. Many people believe that nuclear power is essential to ensure future energy requirements can be met by zero-carbon energy sources. The skills of chemical engineers will be essential to the construction of major new power stations and in the new, concept of small modular reactors, built on a production line. Chemical engineers will need to continue their critical role in safely managing and identifying innovative ways of mitigating the residual impact of nuclear fuel use.