Chemical engineering enters a new 'golden age'

Paul Boughton

The chemical engineering profession has entered a new golden age, according to Professor Phillip Westmoreland of North Carolina State University, and 2014 past president of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE).

In his plenary lecture during CHISA, the 21st International Congress of Chemical and Process Engineering, Westmoreland noted that several of the factors that enabled previous Golden Ages of the profession are currently evident.

A burst of demand and innovation is happening. Factors that contribute to Westmoreland’s logic of the new golden age include new resources for fuel and chemicals, such as hydrofracking and biomass. Applied chemical biology has led to new medicines, medical tools and practices, and biocompatible and biomimetic materials. Dramatic advances in computers, networks, and mobile devices have transformed computing into a powerful cyber-infrastructure of data, design and communications.

Industry, generally, has moved towards process-based, high-productivity manufacturing which chemical engineers have pioneered, now including 3D printing and computer-chip manufacturing. Finally, the systems approach central to chemical engineering finds increasing importance in industry, economics and public policy.

There are two previous golden ages of chemical engineering – the first is generally accepted to be in the period 1915 – 1929, which saw a geographical broadening in the chemical industry, a growing demand for petroleum-based fuels and emergence of the modern profession through the unit-operations concept.

In the 15 years after World War II, a second golden age occurred, again partly due to the high demand for petroleum products. New factors included widespread development of synthetic polymers, drugs, and other products. The profession also moved ahead because of intellectual advances within education which saw a growth in applied mathematics, physics, and reactor engineering.

There were three other plenary lectures at CHISA. Professor Wei Ge, of the Institute of Process Engineering, Chinese Academy of Sciences, China, will speak on Multi-scale Discrete Supercomputing – a game changer for process simulations?

Professor Henrik Lund, of Aalborg University, Denmark, will discuss Renewable Energy Systems – A Smart Energy Approach to the Choice and Modelling of 100% Renewable Solutions.

And Jon-Paul Sherlock, Director of Product Development UK/US, AstraZeneca, and Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) technical vice president, is set to give his chemical engineer’s perspective on the Opportunities and challenges for the pharmaceutical industry.

Ahead of his plenary lecture titled Making Bio-oils: A Microcosm of the Opportunities and Challenges for a Golden Age of Chemical Engineering, Westmoreland, said: “My research on bio-fuel production illustrates both the exciting present as well as the challenges facing chemical engineering.

“Using biomass is a great advance toward sustainability and mitigating climate change if done right. If not, it could be a serious additional source of pollutants and could consume excessive water, land and energy.

“On the other hand, newly abundant oil and gas could wash away thoughtful examination of the science and implications of these more-sustainable choices. Chemical and process engineers have a professional and public obligation to engage in and even lead these discussions.

The congress was part of the series of chemical engineering conferences in Europe supported by the European Federation of Chemical Engineering (EFCE).