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…

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Meet The Chemical Engineer Who Accidentally Turned Into An Entrepreneur And Just Raised $36 Million For His App

An interesting story below about an engineer using his observations in water treatment to innovate and improve work-flow for lots of other companies. A chemical engineering education can lead in lots of different directions!

In 2014, freshly graduated UC Berkeley alum Ryan Chan was working as a chemical engineer at a water purification plant, when he realized that the company was constantly facing equipment downtime. The workers used a maintenance program that helped them track all the breakdowns, but there was a big problem with the software they were using that was slowing them down.

“Everything was desktop based, but the maintenance team, the people that were using it, never sat at a desk,” Chan says. 

So Chan realized there had to be a smarter, mobile-first solution for all the blue collar workers across facilities. He wound up teaching himself how to code at night and on weekends, and developed the app while he worked as a chemical engineer, and later as an iOS developer.

In 2016, Chan launched UpKeep, an app developed for facility managers and maintenance workers that allows them to flag things that need repairs and run equipment audits across facilities.

Source: Meet The Chemical Engineer Who Accidentally Turned Into An Entrepreneur And Just Raised $36 Million For His App

Hand Sanitizer Blending

Photo by Anna Shvets on

Soap and water is a preferred choice for hand hygiene and reducing microbial and viral contamination. However this isn’t always convenient or available when out walking or shopping for necessities, so the next best thing is a hand sanitizer formulation. The nice commercial ones are in short supply, but it is relatively easy to blend your own if you can access the ingredients. Blending chemicals safely is another chemical engineering specialty. Here’s a recipe for small volumes for home use, with some discussion on the physical chemistry basis for the various components.

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Chemical Engineers and Pandemics

Chemical Engineering: the art and science of creating and operating industrial scale systems for transforming raw materials into useful products.

Photo by Gustavo Fring on

When “chemical engineering” is mentioned, many people think of chemical plants, refineries, and such. That’s one part of it, but it also encompasses many other things, including pharmaceuticals and vaccine manufacture. These days, everyone is talking about and hoping for a vaccine for Covid-19. What does this mean for some chemical engineers and what they need to do?

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Three engineering subjects rank in the world’s top 100 | Engineering | University of Waterloo

See the link below for the full story, but nice to see my department (Chemical Engineering) ranked in the top 100 worldwide.  The two others are Electrical Engineering (49th) and Civil Engineering (51 to 100 range).  Mechanical Engineering ranked in the top 150.

Waterloo Engineering notched three top-100 results in the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) worldwide university subject rankings released today for 2019.

Source: Three engineering subjects rank in the world’s top 100 | Engineering | University of Waterloo

Chemical Engineering Imagery

My department put together a nice short video about Chemical Engineering.  It shows some quick images of areas where chemical engineers work, such as alternative energy, pharmaceuticals, water, food processing, and others.  And there are more images about the laboratory research and teaching going on in our facilities.  Have a look and see what you think.

Cannabis Air Emissions

With recent moves to permit sales of cannabis in Canada and some U.S. states, commercial operations are popping up in various locations.  Whenever new industries emerge, there are often new environmental impacts to consider and air pollution seems to be an increasingly common problem with cannabis too.  Not from smoking, but rather from the greenhouse operations where it is grown under lights in high-density conditions to save space.  It turns out that these intensive grow operations can have vented air emissions that are rather smelly, as this one news item describes.

Like all plants, cannabis emits volatile chemical compounds at various stages in its growth.  Some work has been reported in research literature, identifying over 200 chemicals in the air, although I suspect that paper missed a lot of odorous sulfur compounds that are often associated with “skunky” smells.  A lot of the odor compounds are terpenes or their relatives (e.g. limonene, pinene, linalool), and the paper mentions cymene, benzaldehyde, nonanal, and decanol as key odor chemicals.  None of these compounds are particularly hazardous (at least at the normally low concentrations found around plants).  None of them are specific to cannabis either.  Lots of them are produced by various plants, in varying amounts and combinations.  A lot of plant-based essential oils that you can buy contain similar chemicals.

The environmental issue arises if the odor interferes with the neighbouring property and their ability to use and enjoy their property.  The Ontario government website has some information about odors and property-owner rights .  Under Ontario’s Environmental Protection Act (Section 14) odor-emitting industries can get into legal trouble because they are emitting a “contaminant” that causes an “adverse effect”.

From an engineering point of view, the control of odorous emissions like this is not unlike many other industries with odour concerns, like sewage treatment plants, rendering plants, some food manufacturers, and some chemical manufacturers.  The first step is containment, so that odor emissions are not just leaking out of the buildings from a multitude of locations.  If everything can be efficiently captured in one or two well-controlled ventilation systems, then emissions controls can be applied to those vent streams before they discharge into the environment.

It’s not clear at this point what type of emission controls are best for both efficiency and cost points of view.  Usually there are several possible solutions, so engineers have to figure out which one is the most cost-effective.  Standard approaches to odor control run a range of technologies from wet scrubbing to activated carbon capture, to biofiltration and possibly photochemical oxidation.  High temperature thermal oxidation is another option, but probably overkill and too expensive for this application.  One solution may not fit all commercial operations either.  Each location would need a thorough engineering analysis and assessment for a good recommendation, which is something done by chemical and environmental engineers (and some mechanical engineers too).  Companies that rushed into production without doing these assessments may get stuck with expensive retro-fits once the Ministry of Environment comes knocking.

So, with every new “industry” there are issues that come up that may or may not have been anticipated by the business people.  Those issues will keep regulators and engineering consultants busy for a while.

New powder could reduce greenhouse gas emissions | Engineering | University of Waterloo

Some interesting results from my colleague’s research group.  I add some further context below the link…

Researchers at Waterloo Engineering have created a powder that could be used to reduce greenhouse gases at factories and power plants that burn fossil fuels. The advanced carbon powder, developed using a novel process in the lab of chemical engineering professor Zhongwei Chen, could filter and remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from emissions with almost twice the efficiency of conventional materials.

Source: New powder could reduce greenhouse gas emissions | Engineering | University of Waterloo

My Context/Analysis:   Some interesting work in materials science and chemistry.  From the published paper (sorry it’s behind a paywall, but I can read it through the university’s subscription), I can see that the amount of CO2 captured is about 1.6 mmole of CO2 per gram of powder, or about 70 mg/g, at flue gas conditions.  As the paper points out, this is pretty good for CO2 adsorption, but it is not a miracle cure for all of our problems.  To put it in context, in 2016 the U.S. electricity sector emitted something like 1,800,000,000,000 kg of CO2 (from the EPA website).  So, if the powder can capture 70 mg per g it would take about 26,000,000,000,000 kg of powder for one year of capture.  That’s a lot of powder!!  And that’s only for one sector in the U.S. alone (representing about 28% of U.S. CO2 emissions).  So, it’s important to continue doing research, find new things and look at potential applications in a wide range of fields.  But carbon emissions and climate change is a huge problem and there aren’t any easy answers.  Reducing CO2 emissions will generally be better than trying to capture them afterwards, like the three R’s hierarchy (reduce, reuse, recycle).

AIChE Fellow Frances Arnold Is One of Three Winners of 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry | AIChE

Nice to see a Chemical Engineer receive a Nobel prize, for work on random mutagenesis for industrial enzyme selection and improvements.  My PhD work was in enzyme applications, though not this particular area.

Dr. Arnold’s research has produced methods now routinely used to create new catalysts. Her work has led to new enzymes for pharmaceuticals, sustainable biofuels, and other environmentally friendly products.

Source: AIChE Fellow Frances Arnold Is One of Three Winners of 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry | AIChE