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What Is Sustainability?

The rising consequences of global warning on society has greatly increased the awareness of the idea of “sustainability”. The term sustainability in the context of green technology, refers to processes that have the following sets of characteristics…

  • Produce more energy than they consume.
  • Use renewable energy rather than fossil fuel derived, i.e., coal and oil.
  • Have a positive contribution to the environment.
  • Produce minimal waste, i.e., consume as many biproducts as possible.
  • Create products without need of further processing, and or recycling.

Sustainability and green technology are most commonly related to energy processes; however, this branch of technology is applicable in almost every process and niche currently known.

How Chemical Engineering Relates to Sustainability

Chemical engineers use their knowledge of physics, math, chemistry, materials & energy balances, transport phenomena, thermodynamics, and kinetics to provide the critical resources required while protecting the environment from irreparable damage.

Chemical engineering has a profound influence on all processes, regardless of the niche. This work involves transforming raw materials into useful products, generating energy, capturing emissions, measuring contaminant concentrations, and designing/developing new sustainable processes that support our planet rather than destroy it.

Sustainability problems concerning the environment and energy sector are at the forefront of current research and development. It is here we can fully appreciate the influence and impact chemical engineers have on designing, optimising, and implementing sustainable processes.

Take the energy sector for example. Without going into copious amounts of detail, the energy sector involves the combination of chemical/material science, molecular chemistry/physics, mathematical modelling, and process-level system. Traditional energy generation saw the consumption of coal and oil for steam generation, as well as use of natural gas. All of which are finite resources (they will run out). On the contrary, solar energy provides a completely renewable source, whereby the suns heat and light energy is converted to electricity. However, its not just about designing and manufacturing the best material to harness the suns energy. It’s about making a device that can be created, shipped, and installed cost-effectively.

Sustainable Energy - Chemical Engineering Solar Panels

Another example is carbon capture technology. While chemical engineers play a prominent role in the manufacturing and design of the CO2 capturing material, this isn’t enough. It’s about creating a process that utilises the materials efficiently and regenerates them to have both an environmentally and economically sustainable process.

Chemical engineers are also involved in developing new materials from sustainable sources aimed at reducing waste without compromising on performance. Chemical Engineers study modules which involve reaction engineering, and it’s within these modules that chemical engineers can design processes to make a reaction cost-effective enough to be competitive with existing technology. Chemical Engineers understand what happens to those reactants and products after they are used, and whether they can be easily disposed of.

Current Sustainable Processes & Technologies

Sustainable technologies design by chemical engineers

Over the past two decades the advancements in sustainable technology has grown exponentially. Featured here are just some of the current technologies you can find chemical engineers working on to design, and develop sustainable processes…

  • Renewable energy technologies: Solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, and biomass.
  • Energy efficiency technologies: LED lighting, smart grid systems, and building insulation.
  • Green transportation: Electric vehicles, hybrid vehicles, and public transportation systems.
  • Water conservation and management technologies: Rainwater harvesting, greywater recycling, and desalination.
  • Construction materials and design: Green roofs, sustainable timber, and low-carbon concrete.
  • Waste management: Recycling, composting, and anaerobic digestion.
  • Agriculture and aquaculture: Vertical farming, sustainable fishing practices, and permaculture.
  • Carbon capture and storage technologies: Carbon capture and utilization, carbon sequestration, and carbon offsetting.
  • Green chemistry: Bioplastics, biofuels, and green solvents.

Clean energy storage: Advanced batteries, hydrogen fuel cells, and compressed air energy storage.

What Problems Are Chemical Engineers Currently Solving?

Some of the big questions being currently asked and solved within the renewable and sustainable industries are…

  • How can we make the switch from novel lab-scale processes to industrial size processes?
  • Can this process be optimised to be more economical, environmentally friendly, and energy efficient?
  • How can we reduce waste and shipping weight by concentrating products without compromising on quality.
  • How can we replace petroleum-based products, with plant-based materials that perform equally as well or better?
  • How can we reduce microplastics?
  • How can we improve energy efficiency, energy storage, and energy conversion for fuels and materials?
  • How can we improve carbon capture technologies and integrate them with other industries such as wastewater management?

What The Future Will Bring?

 Sustainability will be at the core of all processes in the coming decades if we are to achieve the net-zero targets by 2050 set out on the back of the Paris agreement.  As a chemical engineering student/graduate, you will have the opportunity to work on exciting innovative projects that will make a real positive impact on the world and help to create a more sustainable future for us all.

What is the future of sustainable technology