How chemical engineers can reimagine the future for everyone

Nov 8, 2022

By Chris Hamlin, a Fellow of the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) and the Royal Academy of Engineering.

I’m sure all of us have wondered what the world will look like in the future. Of course, as chemical engineers we aim for a sustainable way of manufacturing the products and services we need to lead healthy, fulfilling and meaningful lives. But we need to ask ourselves how we get there from today, and what role we, as engineers, should play in helping to get us there.

Chemical engineers play a pivotal role in how we live. We work across many industries, right across the globe, linking sectors together, giving us the knowledge to be able to lead and influence change.

Sustainability is the goal for all of us. As you may know, the UN has identified 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) to help the world transition towards economic, social and environmental sustainability. The UK’s ambition to reach net-zero by 2050 fits within this framework, but it’s vital to recognise that each of these SDGs impacts the others and we cannot address any of them in isolation.

For example, how will we sustainably feed 10 billion people by 2050 when natural resources are limited and the provision of food for everyone will compete with energy, water and healthcare? Will we need to prioritise – or – will we be able to provide all the food, clean water, energy and healthcare the growing global population will need? By looking at the full picture, the whole system, chemical engineers can play an important role in addressing this challenge.

Take the vision for the city of the future - it’s projected that in 2050 every second car on the streets of the world could be electric. These electric cars will consume a huge proportion of the new renewable energy generation capacity that will be developed during that time. So we should ask ourselves whether that’s the best use for the renewable electricity while capacity is limited, which it will be for quite some time.

One solution could be to use green hydrogen as fuel. But, in addition to a significant renewable electricity demand itself, the process requires lots of water, and water is becoming more and more scarce in many parts of the world.

Another option could be to use blue hydrogen, especially as we transition to a new energy model. Yes, the process creates some carbon dioxide emissions, but these arise in a way that is very well suited to carbon capture and storage technologies...and hopefully another group of chemical engineers working on nature-based manufacturing technologies will find a way to use the co-generated CO2 as a sustainable feedstock in the production of bioplastics and other materials and fuels.

So, if we are considering other fuel sources for our cars, what else could our limited renewable electricity capacity be used for? One option being developed by chemical engineers is to use renewable electricity in the chemicals industry instead of burning the methane off-gas that is produced as an unavoidable by-product in the manufacturing process, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That off-gas is then available for use as a raw material for fertiliser production, helping us to grow more food and feed the world without needing to extract even more gas from fossil fuel reserves – or alternatively as the feedstock for blue hydrogen production as already mentioned. And that’s just one example that illustrates how and why joined-up thinking by chemical engineers can have a significant impact.

Sustainability is a worldwide challenge with no one single, simple answer. Chemical engineers need to work with other engineers, scientists and policy makers to understand the whole system and shape education, research and business innovation in an ethical and responsible way. Working together, across sectors, across national boundaries and across the world, we have the power to solve some of society’s biggest problems. To reimagine the world for everyone.

Visit IChemE’s website to find out more about how chemical engineers are serving society.

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