Processes & Safety

Over the past century, process safety has moved from a separate activity, adding procedures to existing processes and designs to reduce identified risks to a core issue that is integrated into a process design from the very start and incorporated into the mindset of chemical engineers as probably the most important aspect of the design and operation of any plant. Process safety is built into every chemical engineer’s DNA. The development of risk analysis and mitigation tools that are now routine, like HAZOP (Hazard and Operability) studies, were developed by pioneers like Trevor Kletz in ICI in the 1960s and 1970s. The concept of inherent safety was developed through his book "What you don't have, can't leak". This legacy has led to much improved loss prevention through robust safety management systems, with pioneering work by chemical engineers to replace prescriptive, box-ticking regulatory systems by goal-oriented safety case approaches which started in the UK in the 1970s and have now spread to become standard practice in most parts of the world. Yet major accidents and loss of life have continued to occur, albeit with lower frequency but nevertheless severe consequences (Flixborough 1974, Bhopal 1984, Piper Alpha 1988, Deepwater Horizon 2010, with sodium nitrate storage producing recurring problems every few years), so there is still much to do for chemical engineers to make learning from mistakes and continuous safety management improvement an even more robust process. The opportunities to exploit machine learning and AI in the management of the big data that safety systems have in abundance to improve pro-active identification of process abnormality are just one area where the challenge of making the chemical and process industries as safe as aviation may be addressed. 

Chemical and materials manufacturing and related processes have undergone major transformations over the past century. Traditional large tanks stirred by paddles in batch process, scaled-up laboratory vessels, have been replaced in large part by continuous flow processes where feasible, especially for large volume production. However, the advent of more speciality and fine chemicals produced in small volumes over the past few decades has ensured that batch and semi-batch systems persist. This growth of small volume speciality chemicals and pharmaceuticals, where processes and markets are quite different to those for large bulk commodity materials, has also led to the fragmentation of large monolithic chemical companies into smaller units and much re-alignment of the industry since the 1980s, with increased opportunities for chemical engineers in many more product areas and applications. Alongside this has been the increasing and pervading influence of process systems engineering on the design, optimisation, monitoring and operation of manufacturing processes of all types, aiding process innovation through the development of elaborate and detailed process modelling tools and indeed companies. Process control has moved from manual using slow early computers to micro-computers and wireless sensors, which have revolutionised the capabilities for process safety and product quality control. 

The chemical engineers of the future will be involved in even more process innovation, driven by both wider ranges of smarter and sensitive products and the need to re-invent the chemical manufacturing industry with decarbonised processes and alternative feedstocks to naphtha, primarily bio feedstocks, and increased recycling of waste and recycled materials. Among other challenges and opportunities are an increased move from large central facilities to local, personalised and on-demand small-scale manufacturing and process innovation through increased intensification and micronisation through concepts such as microfluidics and manufacturing on a chip.

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