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In an ever-changing world, one thing is certain; our reliance on fossil fuels must be reduced significantly in order to combat the effects of climate change. Unless you have been living under a rock, the chances are they you will have heard of the phase, and most likely other key buzz words surrounding this hot topic (pun not intended). We are aware that things need to change, however, unless you are involved within this sector directly, you may not know how this is going to be possible? This is where Chemical Engineering comes into its very own!

Chemical engineers, with their unique skills set and expertise, are playing a pivotal role in developing a greener future. Whether you are a chemical engineer, or a student, or simply someone who’s passionate about the environment, you will uncover in this post, the incredible role that chemical engineers are playing to solve the worlds energy and environmental impact crisis.

There is a huge misconception as to what a chemical engineer really does, and for this, many believe that chemical engineering is a dying profession. The problem with these false claims is in the definition of a chemical engineer. When I say chemical engineer, you say… Oil and Gas? Chemical engineering is so much more than this, and you can learn more about what chemical engineers really do in our other resources.

The Role of Chemical Engineers In Sustainability

The role of chemical engineers in developing sustainable green technologies

Chemical engineers are equipped with a vast array of knowledge and expertise that make them one of the most highly sought after professions world-wide. They have the instinctive ability to assess, design, and optimise processes that impact us all in our everyday lives. This means that chemical engineers are best suited to lead the way in developing innovate, sustainable, environmentally friendly energy producing technologies that will reduce our reliance on traditional fossil fuels.

Now the question becomes, what role do chemical engineers play? Without going into too much detail, chemical engineers can assess the environmental impact of processes, products, and materials to get a macro-perspective on the true nature of a system.

One of the most useful techniques is called Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). This allows them to accurately measure the environmental footprint of a product or process from its inception to its end-of-life disposal, ensuring eco-friendly decisions throughout its life cycle. By applying principles of green chemistry and engineering, chemical engineers design processes that minimize waste, reduce energy consumption, and prioritize the use of renewable resources.

Green Technologies in Chemical Engineering

Types of Green Technologies

The term “green” technologies in the context of energy refers to ones that do not produce toxic emissions or consume fossil fuels in order to generate energy. For example, solar panel energy is a green technology, since it harnesses the suns energy, converting heat and light into electricity. Other examples include tidal, biofuel, and wind. The development of such technologies will undoubtably decrease the quantity of fossil fuels consumed; however it is worth noting that this will vary from industry to industry.

It’s not just energy that chemical engineers are getting involved, other green technologies that will help shape our sustainable future are plant-based packaging, plant wall constructions, plastic roads, hydrogen power, and farming. You can check out more on the various green technologies in our other resources.

A key technology that is arguably more critical is in sustainable and eco-friendly waste management systems. Innovations in recycling, up-cycling, and waste-to-energy processes are helping address environmental challenges and reducing the burden on landfills. Having not only a reliable source of safe drinking water, but one that is sustainable for future generation is fundamental to the human population.

Furthermore, chemical engineers are at the forefront of developing sustainable materials. They explore eco-friendly alternatives to conventional materials, striving to reduce the environmental impact of products across various industries. From biodegradable plastics to bio-based materials, these sustainable solutions present opportunities for a circular and regenerative economy.

Sustainable Process Design

Sustainable Process Design Technologies

The next question is usually, how can you design a “sustainable process”? A technique called Process intensification (PI) is a core strategy in sustainable process design. Engineers optimize existing processes to maximize efficiency, reduce resource consumption, and minimize environmental impact. By intensifying the existing processes, chemical engineers achieve the same output with fewer raw materials and energy, contributing to a more sustainable and resource-efficient operation.

A good example would be rather than releasing heat out into the atmosphere, recycle the waste heat into the process which will reduce the amount of fuel required to heat the process.

Additionally, the choice of solvents in chemical processes plays a crucial role in sustainability. Green solvents, which are non-toxic and environmentally friendly, are preferred over conventional solvents to minimise the release of hazardous substances into the environment. It is worth noting here that toxic solvents can be classed as environmentally friendly, if they are not released to the environment. For example, my area of research is using a solvent known as N, N-Dimethyl Cyclohexylamine (DMCHA) which is highly toxic yet is classed as environmentally friendly as we do not release any to the environment.

Water and energy efficiency are equally essential in chemical engineering practices. Chemical engineers continually seek ways to reduce water consumption and energy usage through process modifications and innovative technologies, promoting responsible resource management.

Implementing Sustainability Initiatives

Sustainable Initiatives for Growth in Engineering

Beyond technical solutions, chemical engineers have the power to drive sustainability initiatives within organizations through corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs. By fostering a culture of sustainability and advocating for environmentally conscious practices, chemical engineers can influence their companies to adopt greener strategies and operations.

Furthermore, chemical engineers can actively participate in policy-making processes, advocating for sustainable practices and regulations at both the industry and governmental levels. By influencing policies, chemical engineers contribute to creating an enabling environment for sustainable innovations and practices to thrive.

Building a Sustainable Supply Chain

Chemical Engineering Building A Sustainable Supply Chain

Supply chains and supply chain management is another concept entirely; however, this highlights the diversity of what a chemical engineer can do with their incredible skills set.

A sustainable supply chain is a key component of green initiatives in chemical engineering. Chemical engineers collaborate with suppliers and manufacturers to encourage the adoption of sustainable practices. From sourcing raw materials responsibly to reducing emissions during transportation, a sustainable supply chain encompasses the entire life cycle of products.

You can think of this like the Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) as we discussed previously. By considering all elements involved in the process, you get a more profound understanding which in turn allows you to optimise and improve.

The Future Looks Green

The future of chemical engineering in sustainable green technologies

Whether you are a chemical engineer, thinking of becoming one, or are just interested in helping the environment, I hope it is clear just how big an impact we all can have in creating a greener and sustainable future.

As the quest for net zero continues, it’s important to remember that this cannot be achieved without the work and input from chemical engineers. This not only debunks the rumours that chemical engineering is a dying industry but emphasises that it is needed now more than ever. There isn’t a single thing on this planet, that hasn’t been through the hands or minds of a chemical engineer!