For students considering Chemical Engineering as a major, as well as for those who have already decided on a career in Chemical Engineering, I recommend taking a look at two excellent references. They are not easy reading, as I will be the first to admit, but they are worth a look. Both lay out the challenges and opportunities that await chemical engineers in the 21st century.
In 2003 the National Academies Press published a report entitled “Beyond the Molecular Frontier: Challenges for Chemistry and Chemical Engineering”. It lays out a number of “Grand Challenges” including:
– Learn how to design and produce new substances, materials, and molecular devices with properties that can be predicted, tailored and tuned before production.
– Understand the complex chemistry of the earth, including land, sea, atmosphere and biosphere, so we can maintain its livability.
– Develop unlimited and inexpensive energy, with new ways of energy generation, storage and transportation. (Goals for photovoltaic, batteries, hydrogen generation, fuel cells, dealing with nuclear wasts, superconductive materials are spelled out)
– Design and develop self-optimizing chemical systems and
– Revolutionize the design of chemical processes to make them safe, compact, flexible, energy efficient, environmentally benign and conductive to the rapid commercialization of new products.
The other reference is a paper published in 2008 in CURRENT SCIENCE by four authors working at the Institute of Process Engineering at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. Entitled, “More opportunities than challenges – perspectives on chemical engineering” the paper discusses how chemical engineering in the 21st Century will extend its application to biology, material, pharmacy, renewable energy and resources and other fields. Topics include much greater use of computer modelling, solving problems related to energy and resource depletion, use of engineering tools for system biology and, generally, the needed involvement of chemical engineers in areas threatening the “survival of the society” and the “facilitation of healthier and happier lives”.
I was happy to see a reference to the landmark book by Lewis and McAdams, “Principles of Chemical Engineering” which was one of my favorite textbooks at MIT. The profession has come a long way since that book was written and I will be the first to admit that many of the new areas of chemical engineering are way beyond what we learned or even anticipated when we took that course. But isn’t that the point about new challenges and opportunities?