Looking at the challenges ahead

22 January 2013

At the 2012 Yokogawa User Conference, Dr David Brown, chief executive of the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), spoke about the challenges facing the process engineering sector.

Quoting Professor Sir John Beddington, chief scientific advisor to the UK Government, Dr Brown began his presentation by statign that industry will be facing a 'perfect storm' of technical challenges based around the need for water, food and energy of the ever growing global population.

At the European level, the European Commission recently launched the Horizon 2020 Initiative, an EU framework programme for research and innovation which will run from 2014 to 2020 to tackle these issues. This programme aims to provide a stronger link between the research base and commercially profitable innovation, putting the focus on activities closer to the market in a bid to deliver commercial benefits which are economically sustainable. Around 60% of the progamme budget will be aimed at the sustainability agenda and around one-third of the budget will be aimed at mitigating the extent of climate change and adapting to its effects.

The European Commission has identified a number of enabling technologies considered fundamental to driving the European investment agenda in the future. These include micro- and nano-electronics and photonics; nanotechnologies; advanced materials; biotechnology; and advanced manufacturing and processing – all are areas which require expertise in process control and process management or automation.

The European Commission has also identified some issues facing society which need to be taken into account as we move forward with new technologies. Many of these societal issues also rely on the skills of chemical and process engineers to deliver solutions.

The energy challenge
The energy challenge tops the list. There is a steadily growing demand which needs to be satisfied by bringing energy resources from increasingly demanding places. This will result in increasing engineering intensity – if we are obtaining energy from more difficult places, under tighter environmental controls and with tighter regulatory and safety scrutiny then a much greater engineering input will be required.

At the same time, we all need to use energy more efficiently. Energy costs and pricing volatility create increasing problems for energy-intensive industries which requires us to raise the efficiency of existing processes by looking more closely at the system.

It will also be necessary to reconfigure entire infrastructures – the generation, supply and distribution infrastructure – if we are going to be generating energy from increasingly weird and wonderful places – for example the roofs of our houses, offshore wind and waves – we need to be able to access these places to be able to send power in and out. We need to be able to assemble power from a diverse and distributed range of inaccessible environments to bring the power to where it is needed. This will require a very different supply and distribution infrastructure.

Safety will also be a key driver. We are all coming under tighter scrutiny. Companies need to have a good reputation for safe and responsible well managed performance which depends on better process understanding, process control, proper upgrade procedures that make sense and are well understood and followed and over-arching all of this it will require a culture of safety from the very start of an engineers education.

Sustainability used to be something that only visionaries worked towards. This is not the case today. Now it is about keeping costs under control and maintaining an ability to operate against the scrutiny of the media, the public and market regulators. It is about operating in an environment where climate change is real and important and about responding to pressure to show real progress towards more sustainable processes.

We also need to work towards abolishing waste. The natural world does not do waste! Removing it from our processes would be a good way to save money. Currently we pay for the raw materials, we pay to process them and then we pay to have the waste removed. Industry needs to become smarter, safer, more sustainable and more profitable all at the same time! This demands that everything we do has to be done better, smarter and more effectively and we need to do this against a background of rising costs and economic uncertainty. The skills shortage looks set to make these challenges even more difficult.

It is vital that we better understand our processes and this is one of the key challenges for the process and chemical engineering community today. We need to understand the whole value chain, from the fundamentals upwards. The time has gone when process engineers can leave the science to the scientists and the research to the researchers. Today it is necessary to understand the fundamentals too if we are to connect them with first-rate scaled-up manufacturing.

IChemE is soon to publish its latest technology strategy roadmap which will look at how four key challenges to society – energy, food, health & wellbeing and water – can be addressed by industry. Go to: http://www.icheme.org/

For further Horizon 2020 details go to: http://ec.europa.eu/research/horizon2020/

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