Centenary blog: Spotlight on materials

Centenary blog: Spotlight on materials

1st October 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 Joseph Bailey, who was part of the editorial panel looking at materials, picks out his choices of elements to celebrate, communicate and inspire.

Joseph Bailey, Project Manager, Progressive Energy Ltd

Name: Joseph Bailey

Job title and organisation: Project Manager, Progressive Energy Ltd

IChemE role: Member of the Energy, Sustainability and Materials Panels as part of the IChemE centenary project. 

Bio: Joseph gained an MEng in Chemical Engineering from Bath University, UK, in 2015 before moving to Amsterdam, Netherlands, where he spent 4 years working in the Integrated Gas and CO2 abatement group at Shell. He then moved back to the UK in 2019 working for Recycling Technologies Ltd where he spent 3 years project managing their first commercial-scale plant for the recycling of hard to recycle plastic waste through the pre-FEED (Front End Engineering Design), FEED and Detailed Engineering phases as well as supporting the operation of their pilot plant in Swindon, UK. In 2022 he moved to Progressive Energy Ltd, managing the development of their Electrolytic Hydrogen Portfolio and Industrial Fuel Switching programs. 

Materials have always played a central role in our society and the relics of history tell the story of development from the Stone and Bronze Ages through to the industrial revolution and beyond. However, the range and abundance of man-made materials has never been as vast as it is in the present day and our consumption of materials is only expected to increase over the next century. 

The invention and development of new materials may appear to be at the heart of current global issues such as climate change, sustainable resource use and pollution. However, often the search for and use of new materials has been about improving quality of life and reducing our impact on the planet. The much-bemoaned plastics that are polluting our rivers and oceans were originally developed as a replacement for ivory and horns. 

Today, humanity requires about 1.75 Planet Earths to sustain our current demand and consumption of the world’s resources. Clearly that isn’t sustainable, and in the future we are going to need to not only develop new materials but also change our relationship with consumption towards a circular economy approach. I hope the following points show you why we should celebrate the materials of the 20th century whilst also inspiring you to respond to the urgent call for action in the 21st century. 


  • Materials are all around us and are an essential part of our daily existence, most of which are man-made. You’re probably reading this message in a building primarily constructed from concrete, wearing synthetic fibres and reading this text on a phone made from plastics and alloys.

  • The mining and use of materials over the last century facilitated many of the current things we take for granted. Aluminium helped enable the aviation industry, stainless steel is essential in most modern-day home appliances, and copper cables and batteries are facilitating the electrification of our energy system. 

  • Plastics have allowed us to grow whilst reducing our environmental impact of using other materials like glass, paper and metal. A McKinsey study in 2022 demonstrated that in 14 out of 15 typical everyday applications, the use of plastic compared to other materials represented a 10-90% reduction in equivalent greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in a lifecycle assessment. 


  • While the mass of Earth’s life forms stands at about 1.1 trillion metric tons and has not changed much in recent years, the so-called anthropogenic (caused by humans either directly or indirectly) mass of artificial materials is growing exponentially. It’s expected that by the year 2040 the weight of anthropogenic mass will be double the amount of Earth’s life forms. 

  • The issue of plastic pollution is at the forefront of consumer opinion polls and more than 90% of UK consumers think we are using too much plastic. However, replacing single use plastics with single use alternatives can increase the amount of GHG emissions. A consumer would need to use a paper bag approximately 3 times and a cotton bag approximately 130 times before there has been a GHG emissions saving compared to single-use plastic bags.

  • Steel is one of the most common materials used in industry. It can withstand high winds, hurricanes and earthquakes, plus it is non-flammable and corrosion resistant. Even 200 years after its discovery we are still innovating in what steel can do whilst also achieving very high recycling rates with over 80% of the world’s current steel use coming from recycled sources. 


  • A SystemIQ study showed that current industry and policy actions could more than double system circularity of plastics from 14% to 33% by 2030 (measured as the share of expected plastic demand that is reduced, reused, or recycled). This would lead to a reduction of 11 million tonnes (Mt) of CO2e emissions and 4.7 Mt less plastic waste disposed in landfills or incinerators, compared to a continuation of business-as-usual trends by 2030. 

  • New materials such as graphene are revolutionising technology. Graphene can be used to test the predictions of quantum electrodynamics. This is a new area of research since it hasn't been easy to find a material that displays dirac particles. The best part is, graphene isn't some exotic material. It's something anyone can make!

  • Biomaterials and Metal-Organic Frameworks (MOFS) are two of the fastest growing areas of material research. These man-made developments are likely to play a prominent role in our society over the next 100 years, and like plastics, steel and cement, the range of applications and capabilities of these materials will only increase. 

Thank you for reading my highlights. I encourage you to visit the materials section of the ChemEng Evolution website to find out more. 

A materials panel discussion entitled Reducing the impact of our dependence on steel, cement and plastics was held on 12 October 2022. Watch the recording here. For more information on IChemE's centenary, visit www.chemengevolution.org or follow #ChemEngEvolution on social media.