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A vision for chemical engineering

By Dorothy Lozowski |

Chemical engineering is a discipline with far-reaching and diverse applications. The list of industries that employ its professionals is extensive: petroleum refining, pharmaceuticals, biomedical, basic and specialty chemicals, mining, agriculture, energy and food-and-beverage, to name a few.

While the basic principles of chemical engineering remain steadfast, rapid advances in technology and the evolving needs of society create new directions and areas of focus for chemical engineers. Recently, leaders from the chemical engineering community concluded a three-year study to outline a vision for the direction of the profession for the next 30 years. This culminated in the report “ New Directions for Chemical Engineering” by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (Washington, D.C.; www.nationalacademies.org). The chair of the committee that wrote the report, Eric Kaler, president of Case Western Reserve University, said: “Chemical engineering is often at the heart of solutions to many of the problems we face, but for our field to stay in a position of global leadership and continue our pace of innovation, we need to reaffirm strong investment in this field.”

 

Opportunities for chemical engineering

A brief summary from the over 300-page report on areas where chemical engineers can have the most impact in the coming years follows:

Decarbonization. Chemical engineers are making important contributions to address climate-change-driven efforts to lower carbon emissions through technologies that support low-carbon energy sources, energy efficiency, carbon capture and storage, “green” chemistry, energy storage to support electrification and more. The report recommends that federal research funding be directed to further develop technologies that enable lower-carbon energy sources, cost-effective carbon capture and storage, as well as to develop new technologies that use little or no carbon.

Water, food and air quality. The report suggests that chemical engineers can bring both a “molecular- and systems-level” approach to addressing global needs around water, food and air quality. Collaboration with other disciplines, such as with civil engineers for water use and purification, and with atmospheric scientists for air quality, will be particularly valuable. Chemical engineers can help address the changing needs in the world’s food sources through collaboration on advanced agricultural practices, and with researchers who are developing new food sources in the laboratory.

Targeted and accessible medicine. Rapid advances are being made in biology and biochemistry to treat human illness. Chemical engineers can contribute to reactor design and scale-up, separations techniques and non-invasive drug delivery methods. Quantitative engineering skills can also be applied to immunology, such as cancer immunotherapies and vaccine design.

Circular economy . Chemical engineers are working toward sustainability by advancing renewable feedstocks, reducing waste and developing advanced recycling technologies.

Materials. Chemical engineers play a critical role in developing novel materials, such as polymers, biomaterials and electronic materials.

For all of these areas, cross-disciplinary collaboration as well as international cooperation are key to making the highest impact in meeting the evolving needs of the world’s population. ■

Dorothy Lozowski

Dorothy Lozowski, Editorial Director

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