Once, fertilisers could only be obtained from natural reserves of nitrates, phosphates, and potassium. At the turn of the 20th century, the industrialisation of the Haber process allowed ammonium nitrate to be produced using nitrogen captured from the air. This revolutionised the amount of fertiliser that could be produced, boosting global crop yields. Thanks to this vital leap in chemical engineering, a world population of billions can be fed today. Chemical engineers are increasingly involved in the growing, processing, and sustainable distribution of food and production of enjoyable but healthy drinks. They can expect to play an increasing role in modern, more sustainable agriculture and the rebalancing between meat and fruit/vegetable-based food in the light of climate change, health, and dietary drivers.
The lack of clean water and sewage facilities once blighted cities across the world. In the late 19th century, Joseph Bazalgette’s sewer system eliminated cholera from London. And thanks to his foresight, he designed the system to consider a much larger future population. Today, London is home to another major chemical engineering project, the Thames Tideway ‘super sewer.’ As the global population increases, the role of chemical engineers in delivering clean water and taking waste away is set to grow, especially in the developing world. Providing anaerobic digestion processes as a low energy treatment option at different scales alongside new innovations based on membranes or smarter separations is one example of where they will make an impact. Ensuring that everyone on the planet has access to clean water will be a key challenge requiring key chemical engineering skills, as will the related area of providing safe sewage and sanitation systems for all. Water will become an increasingly scarce resource which will need to be nurtured with increasing efficiency and care; chemical engineers have a key role in minimising demand of water for agriculture and manufacturing. For example, biofuels currently provide low carbon alternative to fossil fuels but often use 10,000 times more water to produce them.