The Future of Chemical Engineering

Sometimes I see people getting concerned about future prospects for chemical engineering careers, usually because of some downturn in the oil and gas markets. I guess we should never stop emphasizing that chemical engineering is much more than oil, gas, and petrochemicals! There is also food, pharmaceuticals, alternative energy, environment, safety, consumer products, plastics, minerals, metals, paper & fibers, etc….

Actually, the next 30 years is probably going to be a very exciting and technically challenging time to be a chemical engineer. The world needs people with the innovation skills to handle new materials and energy processes more than ever. Why is that? Here are a few quick thoughts…

Fossil fuels: yes I know that we’re trying to transition away from fossil fuels, but that in itself is a huge challenge and it’s not going to happen overnight. Even ignoring the transportation and heating uses, we still rely on them for feedstocks in plastics, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and other manufacturing. Chemical engineers have a huge task ahead in re-engineering the existing refineries and plants to accommodate the shifts in demand.

Alternative fuels and feedstocks: the shift from a fossil carbon-based world to a renewable and bio-based economy requires a huge chemical engineering effort to develop new processes, design new plants, and tackle all the environmental sustainability and safety issues while doing so. This work is already underway in many places around the world. One example in Canada is the Bioindustrial Innovation Canada centre in Sarnia, Ontario.

Green Energy: alternative fuels like ethanol, biodiesel, and biogas are already well-established but need expansion and improvement. There is also much more that can be done to create other bio-based transportation fuels, also requiring a lot of chemical engineering. Transitions to electric vehicles will drive demand for battery materials, like lithium, for many years. Also, recycling of battery materials and electric motor components (rare earth elements) will become much more important as demand rises. Extracting, recovering, recycling, and purifying materials is a chemical engineering specialty.

Green Plastics & Materials: it’s not so easy to simply give up on fossil-based plastics and other materials. They are relatively easy to produce and have nice properties. But, there has been lots of ongoing work on bio-based plastics, fibers, etc. that can be eventually used as substitutes. The development and then production of these materials is a big chemical engineering challenge.

Food Supply: this is an on-going concern, where chemical engineering can play a role in helping to make products that have better shelf-life (limiting waste), as well as recovering valuable chemicals and materials from food waste and by-products.

Those are just a few quick thoughts about future challenges. Anyone thinking of combining their interests in math, chemistry, biology, and physics with environmentally and socially relevant challenges for the next generation should consider chemical engineering.

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