Social Experience

The impact of chemical engineering on the social experience of people can be illustrated both by the transformations in lifestyle and quality of life experienced by individuals and by the role that chemical engineers play in society. In the period 1920-1950, the quality of life was quite hard for most people even in developed countries that had benefited from the industrial revolution. Yet the contrast with the developing world where industrialisation was in its infancy and infra-structure poor was very marked. Europe’s chemical industry was based on coal tar distilling, industry and homes were powered by coal and air pollution was high but accepted. Iron and steel and mineral processing were dominant and polluting industries, with little concern for the environment. Many people were employed in chemical engineering based companies but formally trained chemical engineers were few and to some extent elite. They focused on heavy industry and areas such as healthcare, food and even water services were alien to them. They focused on technology design and implementation and worked in this silo, with little influence on policy, finance, or public concerns. 

Since WWII both society and the role of chemical engineers has changed dramatically. Educational courses have expanded across the world. Although many continued to work in ‘heavy’ industry such as chemicals and power including nuclear, their influence extended greatly to other sectors – formulation industries, personal products, food, and drink including brewing and more recently into healthcare and pharmaceuticals. Moreover, the chemical engineering skillset has been deployed in non-engineering sectors such as finance, business planning and insurance, and chemical engineers have become very engaged with policymakers and public engagement. Tackling society’s ‘global grand challenges’ has become key to their modus operandi and an inspiration to young people to join the profession. Energy, with chemical engineers at its heart, has gone through several transformations: coal to oil and gas (linked to massive expansion in petrochemicals and plastics, which have transformed the materials world) and now the start of the essential transition to renewables and decarbonised power and processes. Process safety has been in the limelight through bad accidents and loss of life over the second half of the 20th century, but chemical engineers have made great strides with new mitigating approaches and improvements to design and practice, but with much still to do. Climate change mitigation and sustainability have come to the top of the agenda and are beginning to be embedded in the way chemical engineers think and design new products and processes, much the same as safety became in the 1970s-1980s. 

Looking into the future, the life of chemical engineers will be increasingly interwoven into all aspects of society and the quality of life. Providing engineering solutions and thought leadership in society, policy, ethics to address the grand challenges of the 21st Century will be at the forefront: driving net-zero by 2050 or earlier, providing sustainable processes and products and enabling the circular economy, harnessing the power of digital, AI (Artificial Intelligence) and big data, remote working and operation, the engineering of medicines and biotechnology, natural resource management and transforming chemical manufacture to new feedstocks will all feature large in how chemical engineering helps transform society.  Enabling developing countries to achieve the quality of life they aspire to in a decarbonised world, ensuring equality, diversity, and opportunity for entry across the profession are all needed to ensure that chemical engineering both drives societal change and reflects its values.

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