Centenary blog: Spotlight on built environment and transport
1st August 2022
Every month throughout our centenary year, we will be asking an IChemE member to write a blog about each of the centenary themes. The themes have been selected to highlight and celebrate the enormous contribution that chemical engineering has made to society over the last century.
IChemE member Dr Nasrin Aghamohammadi, who was part of the editorial steering committee member for ChemEng Evolution and chaired the Built Environment and Transport theme, picks out her choices of elements to celebrate, communicate and inspire.
Name: Dr Nasrin Aghamohammadi
Job title and organisation: Associate Professor, Environmental Engineering, University of Malaya, Malaysia
IChemE role: Chair of the Built Environment and Transport theme for ChemEng Evolution
Bio: Nasrin is an Associate Professor in the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, University of Malay, Malaysia. Her core expertise is in environmental health engineering, air pollution, climate change adaptation, the urban heat island phenomenon, and health impact. With an extensive background in pure and applied research as well as an engineering background, Nasrin has a wide range of experience in projects involving air, water, wastewater, solid waste, and related health issues.
Currently, she heads the Unit for Occupational and Environmental Health at University of Malaya. She is an associate editor for the Sustainable Cities and Society journal, the guest editor for Energy and Buildings journal as well as an editorial member for various peer review journals. Outside of her work commitments, Nasrin has devoted her time as Chair of the ChemEng Evolution Built Environment and Transport theme, planning several technical and development events to promote sustainable practices.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which reaffirm the rising global concern for sustainable cities and communities, have sparked the recent interest in examining how the built environment and transportation are significantly related to the role of chemical engineers to prepare appropriate platforms and facilities such as road and marine transports, pipelines, railways and streets as well as decarbonised vehicles and buildings for carbon footprint reductions.
Chemical engineers can drive the responsible closure and remediation of contaminated environments if necessary and improve passive buildings and active transportation. This brings us together to cover the role of chemical engineers in developing sustainable zero-carbon solutions for the future built environment and transport.
- A well-designed building fits into its surroundings comfortably, endures, and serves its function in a safe and energy-efficient manner. The expertise of a chemical engineer ensure the right precautions are taken during the design of industrial and commercial large buildings, from the construction materials chosen, the management of hazardous wastes, a thorough understanding of heat flow and loss, through to how the buildings function once operational. Chemical engineers work alongside other professions including emergency services, for example, to clean up and remediate an area after a toxic or hazardous waste spill.
- Through systematic risk assessments, chemical engineers ensure that industrial plants have no/minimal deleterious impact on their environment. Furthermore, knowledge of materials and energy flows can be applied to mitigate fire risks in large residential towers. Once a building is operational, ongoing input is required to adapt designs when functional requirements change. Chemical engineers take a proactive role in monitoring energy, heat pumps and water consumption, as well as waste disposal or treatment.
- We celebrate how chemical engineers reduce and remove the sulphur in transport fuel using hydrogen. They play a significant role in reducing carbon to achieve cleaner air and more liveable cities. The multi-disciplinary programme that enabled this step forward involved inputs from vehicle manufacturers on what can be done with engines, air quality modellers on the how automotive emissions would be dispersed and chemical engineers to determine the cost to the refining industry and hence the increase in price needed on the fuels. Chemical engineers are key to the supply and quality of fuel, and to the design of scrubbers on ships if high sulphur fuels are used.
- The built environment is at once a great human achievement and an ongoing and increasingly difficult challenge, as we juggle comfort and convenience with the impact on our natural and social environment. As we become more sensitive and aware of our impact, the role of the chemical engineer becomes more significant and visible to achieve the sustainable development goal and reduce carbon and heat.
- Urbanisation and population growth urge us to bring academia and industries to understand the influence of air, light, heat, noise, water and visual pollution on municipal waste and wastewater. Our lifestyle impacts the soil, waterways and coastlines, and our industrial waste sometimes results in major disasters. This brings the critical attention needed to built environments and transportation to prioritise safety and sustainability. How to do this while preserving fair access, dependability, and long-term economic and environmental sustainability is the key to the task.
- The technology for decarbonising large vehicles and bulk transportation are not as advanced, and the potential of electric trucks is constrained by the size and weight of the batteries. Chemical engineers are still looking into more efficient and safe ways to make alternative low/zero carbon fuels. Chemical engineers will need to continue to develop new technologies, and a sound policy that offers incentives for scaling up and implementing these technologies will be necessary to successfully decarbonise our buildings and transportation systems.
- Looking ahead, chemical engineering researchers are innovating materials and processes for passive buildings in the hope that industrial plants can leave a lighter footprint than ever before. Chemical engineers have several possibilities to influence the direction of the industry. The standard is always being raised. In an already complex energy environment, demand for cooling and heating systems in buildings, such as air conditioning and heat pumps, is rising. To prevent a repetition of any tragedy, emergency systems in buildings and services are also essential, as are fire safety standards for building materials.
- The effective development of low-carbon materials and cleaner production for the built environment, such as "green" steel, is essential for a sustainable future. Pathways to sustainable cities will include developing the circular economy, looking into novel materials, and developing goods at the intersection of biology, physics and chemistry. The challenges are numerous and diverse, but there are encouraging answers in the works, such as decarbonisation research, battery technology, recycling and passive buildings. The COP26 climate change conference reinforced the urgent necessity for us to reduce our carbon footprint. We must reduce emissions, and science and technology are the only means by which this can be done. To do this, chemical engineers may make a significant contribution. If we're going to create more liveable cities with sustainable transportation, chemical engineers' systems thinking approach will be essential.
- The economic growth of the 20th Century was, to a large degree, driven by the reduction in cost and increase in the speed of transportation. Without this decrease in cost, the economies of scale of the 20th Century industrial revolution could not have been realised. Today, goods can be manufactured in relatively few locations and shipped at an acceptable cost to global markets. The challenge for the future is to decarbonise transport. Private cars will probably be electric. Chemical engineers are working on how to reduce costs of manufacturing the chemicals needed for the batteries required. Heavy vehicles could possibly be electric, but currently, there appear to be challenges concerning the weight and size batteries required. Alternatives, such as biofuels or hydrogen from renewable power, are also being tested. Chemical engineers are working on how to manufacture these at an acceptable cost and safely.
Thank you for reading my highlights. I encourage you to visit the built environment and transport section of the ChemEng Evolution website to find out more.
A built environment and transport panel discussion entitled ‘Developing sustainable zero-carbon solutions for the future’ was held on 10 August 2022. Watch the recording here. For more information on IChemE's centenary, visit www.chemengevolution.org or follow #ChemEngEvolution on social media.