Concern for the environment and sustainable use of the earth’s resources have taken several decades longer than process safety to rise to the top of societies and chemical engineering’s priorities as a fundamental part of the profession’s DNA. Over the past 100 years there has been an evolution of thinking in this area, with an initial focus on health and pollution (initially air and then water) with London smog in the UK in the 1950s being eliminated but remaining a problem for some countries which are still heavy coal users. This has moved on to current concerns about greenhouse gases, biodiversity and habitat loss and there is now growing awareness that social inclusivity and circular economies will be increasingly significant in the future. From the turn of the century in 2000, good environmental and sustainability practice have become increasingly embedded in the design and operation of new processes, with the ability to retrofit solutions that improve existing processes also a key target. Process and efficiency and resource management have always been the chemical engineers’ concern but looking ahead they must be paramount. Examples are:
The concepts of organic agriculture were developed in the early 1900s, with some believing that use of organic fertilisers, like manure or bone meal, contribute to healthier soil. With the trend of organic foods growing in the early 2000s, farmers adopted organic farming, aiming to be USDA organic approved, while promoting healthy lifestyle globally. Centralised on nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus or potassium, chemical engineers are increasingly involved in providing safe, organic foods to solve, essentially, food poverty.
Biofuels can be divided into first (edibles), second (non-edibles), third (algae fuel) and fourth (solar fuels and electro fuels) generations. Fuels derived from oil-rich plants such as corn and sugarcane (USA), rapeseed (EU), palm oil (Malaysia), or even mushrooms and Giant King Grass, are strong competitors in the renewables industry. Carbon-neutral, reliable, sustainable, chemical engineering will help by keeping fuel prices low, and in the future, normalize biofuel as an everyday efficient energy source.
Carbon products: fibre and graphene
Carbon fibre and graphene - materials of the future, just polyacrylonitrile and resin (binding agent), carbon fibre shook the world with its potential as the revolutionary material of the 20th century with high strength, chemically and thermally resistant, versatile, while being lightweight. Carbon fibre is widely used in multiple applications from military and civil aerospace usage to sportswear. Likewise, graphene took the world by storm in the 1990s as a low-cost and flexible 2D material and its full potential will be exploited in the decades ahead. Chemical engineers will be developing ways to produce both materials more economically while developing their use as part of the smarter, more sustainable materials revolution.