The world population is exceeding seven billion and it is expected to exceed nine billion by 2050. As average life span gets longer, a higher standard of living is aspired. While the demand for energy and resources rise, the responsibilities shape the future of chemical engineering. A quick glance at the past of chemical engineering reveals its contribution to human progress. Chemical engineering plays an important role in providing and maintaining key resources like energy, water, food, health and well-being, through an increasing population and demand.
The potential of chemical engineering in managing resources is shaped by factors besides science and technological improvement. The answer to the question, why some of the solution suggested by engineers are being discarded can be found through economic and political tendencies. Governments favor reliable economic activity, and these solutions cannot be applied until the economic conditions are proper. This is a particular problem since the major industries chemical engineers work for are heavily affected by political changes.
In order to come up with a sustainable energy plan that keeps up with the well-being aspect, widely available ultra-low carbon, or carbon free energy needs to be utilized. This brings importance to a wider use of renewable energy and improvements in energy storage. Personal and commercial transport need to be decarbonised. Carbon capture and utilization are other aspects of a sustainable energy plan. Yet, there is another direction, that can be applied to every process starting today: increasing the efficiency of existing processes. This means energy and resource optimization or tweaking the process flows in order to make better use of waste heat.
The short to middle term solution to the water problem, would be the recycle and reuse of waste-water in industrial processes. New technologies can be developed bearing in mind the energy efficiency aspect. As in the energy example, processes can be optimized to reduce water losses. In the long run it is aimed to produce widely available clean water and more efficient management of human waste.
Food production is a very energy and resource intensive process, and in the future it will be necessary to ensure the water and land quality for food industry. Chemical engineers can help implement mow impact agricultural methods and decrease the greenhouse emissions caused by modern agriculture. Waste is the biggest loss in food supply chain and can be reduced by recycling technologies as compost, or for energy generation.
Chemical engineering processes support the manufacture of a wide range of products, that support a better lifestyle, such as consumer goods, construction materials and other lifestyle products. By applying green engineering the industrial design can be brought to sustainable levels, tat do not interfere with the life quality of the population. Raw material efficiency and recycle can be adapted into the production processes.
There are aspects that can be predicted for the future when it comes to the exhaustion of resources. The challenges grow as uncertainties arise through politics, economics, and public view. And yet, the role and responsibilities of chemical engineer remains central for the production and distribution of resources. Still there is a lot of technological development on the way, but the short term solutions can start today. Optimization of existing processes for a better resource management can be applied by process simulation technology we have today. The old process technology will stay with us a little longer, so it is up to chemical engineers to make the best of them.
If you want to read more about why chemical engineering matters in the 21st century, have a look at this IChemE article: Chemical Engineering Matters
24 September 2015