Jump menu

Main content |  back to top

There is a consensus among political and business leaders that the coming decades will present a range of global social and economic challenges that will be both complex and difficult to overcome.

These challenges will affect all the countries in the world and will have implications for almost every aspect of our lives, from food and water to energy use and health.

The driving forces behind these challenges are continuing population growth, the emergence of affluent middle classes in the developing nations and increasing urbanisation.

The Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE - opens in a new window) has identified these issues in a report, “Chemical Engineering Matters”, which was published in November 2012.

In this article, Ed Daniels, IChemE Technical Vice President and Executive Vice President Shell Projects & Technology, talks to Impact about the rationale for the report, its intended readership and how it may help to focus discussions on the role of chemical engineering.

The report focuses on i) securing sustainable energy supplies; ii) food and nutrition; iii) access to clean water; and iv) health and wellbeing: areas where chemical engineers can make a positive impact.

At the heart of the report, lie four “vistas”: graphics that apture the current status in these areas.

The aim is to offer a snapshot of the current situation and to provoke debate, as Daniels explains: “The vistas show solutions that are available now, in the near term or on the horizon.

These summary diagrams are likely to be the subject of animated discussion: they are open to constant revision.

Indeed, IChemE recognises that step changes may occur and that each vista could alter dramatically.

The rich variety of solutions that can be suggested is a compelling illustration of the possibilities offered by chemical engineering.”

The future may be challenging and unclear, but it seems certain that chemical engineering will be central to the delivery of sustainable energy, water, food and wellbeing in all parts of the world.

Planning and innovating for the long term

Taking energy as an example, current trends in population growth and urbanisation suggest that, by 2050, the world will need twice the energy it does today.

At the moment, no one can say exactly where this energy will come from, but the solution will call for innovation across energy sources, energy use and the conservation of energy.

Thinking and planning three or four decades ahead can be difficult, Daniels says.

“The challenges we face are longterm issues.

Experience at Shell shows that to take a new energy technology from development through commercialisation to the point where it makes a 1% contribution to a nation’s energy system requires about 30 years.

This is clearly a much longer time frame than most national political cycles, so we at IChemE hope that, by raising awareness, we will encourage a more long-term and strategic view.

This will help governments to formulate plans that deliver effective solutions more quickly.”

The issues that the report highlights are complex.

Addressing the potential energy shortfall, for example, will require technical solutions that work in the highly variable and sometimes extreme conditions in which energy resources are found and developed.

Furthermore, there are substantial economic challenges and imperfections in the current global energy market, not least that there is, as yet, no global price set for carbon dioxide trading.

This makes it difficult to manage international carbon trades and the targets for emissions.

Daniels stresses that chemical engineers must understand the non-technical aspects of the challenges.

“Many of these issues are politically charged. Each government has its own policies and energy resource agenda.

The differences are not trivial; conflicts have been started over disputed resource ownership or disagreements on the use of a resource.”

Although political decisions will be crucial to meeting the challenges that have been identified, the IChemE remains politically neutral.

However, the report cites the need for greater engagement with policymakers to ensure that the decisions that affect funding and regulation are evidence based.

It also highlights the need for increased public engagement to overcome the negative and often inaccurate public perception of chemistry, chemicals and chemical engineering.

Explaining the issues

One of the key issues that IChemE faces is determining how the messages from the report and the thoughts of chemical engineers can best be communicated to non-technical audiences.

“This will require effective science communication,” Daniels says.

“Our aim at IChemE, and the responsibility of all professional chemical engineers, is to deliver concise, accurate formation that non-specialists can understand, discuss and act on.

We have to find the middle ground between the snappy and sometimes misleading sound bites in a 30-second television interview and the grind of a lecture that starts from first principles and often confuses its non-technical audience.

“Most people do not have time to focus on these big problems.

So, we have to tailor information to specific audiences; provide the necessary information using  language that is easily understood; and then encourage non-specialists in the political sphere and the  general public  to reflect and make decisions that are as well informed as possible,” Daniels says.

The future may be challenging and unclear, but it seems certain that chemical engineering will be central to the delivery of sustainable energy, water, food and wellbeing in all parts of the world.

“Chemical Engineering Matters” is aimed at addressing the challenges faced by chemical engineers and focuses on the themes and issues that are of highest priority and greatest relevance to society.

“We hope the report will inform chemical engineers but also that it will find its way to policymakers, politicians, nongovernmental organisations and the general public,” Daniels affirms.

“We all have a role to play in understanding and addressing the issues the report highlights.

Given the scale of the challenges facing humanity, doing nothing is not an option.”

Pivotal in managing risk

In addition to setting out the four key vistas, the report describes IChemE’s current thinking in three fundamental underpinning areas: safety and risk; education and training; and research and development.

The first of these, safety and risk, is of particular interest in the current economic climate where organisations are under great pressure to trim costs and squeeze their assets.

“Chemical engineering plays a vital role in helping to ensure the safety and integrity of engineering assets,” Daniels says.

Industrial accidents in the process industries have the potential to be severe and to cause extensive damage to material assets and possibly injury or loss of life.

“Over recent years, some organisations have concentrated their safety efforts on personal safety and minimising the risk of personal injury.

This is undoubtedly important, but there must be an equally strong focus on process safety.

Process safety is fundamental to operations involving high-temperature and highpressure systems, so in this sphere, the role of the chemical engineer is also vital,” Daniels concludes.

Page Tools

Discover More

Criterion Catalysts & Technology
Criterion is the world’s largest supplier of hydroprocessing catalysts, which includes catalysts for hydrotreating, hydrocracking, hydrogenation and isomerization.
CRI Catalyst Company
CRI Catalyst Company serves the chemical and petrochemical industry by supplying catalysts, technology, and services to meet a wide range of requirements.
Receive the latest digital edition direct to your mailbox.