Ten future careers of chemical engineers (Day 100)
4th September 2014
Normally, 'presidents' cast their eye over their achievements for this mini milestone. But to break the tradition, I am going to look forward to speculate how careers in chemical engineering might evolve.
I find that newspapers often produce articles hypothesising about what possible careers we will be performing in the future. The majority of the time these future careers all involve an aspect of chemical engineering.
I know from working as a chemical engineer that we can be hard to identify as we are rarely called ‘chemical engineers’. We can be process engineers, safety engineers, bioproduct engineers, design engineers, environmental engineers… and some of us aren’t even called engineers!
Reading through the online literature I came across a variety of future professions and roles, some more fanciful than others, that I think will be well suited to the skills of tomorrow’s chemical engineers and some that are already being done by today’s chemical engineers.
Here are ten (possible!) future careers of chemical engineers:
1. Space Fuel Processor
With the imminent dawn of commercial space travel e.g. Virgin Galactic; it is probable that competition from other companies will drive the price of travel down, making space flight more common.
Space tourism will initially involve just two to three hour sub-orbital flights. But this will gradually develop into longer voyages with flights lasting several days or weeks to allow visits to distant planets or space stations.
Chemical engineers are currently working to find new sources for fuels e.g. bio-refineries, wind farms, hydrogen cells, algae factories and fusion technology. These could be applied to fuel space travel.
2. Uranium Recycler
Alternative energies like solar, wind, tidal and hydrogen are going to become increasingly important. But currently strategy highlights the leading role nuclear energy will have. However, current thinking is that a shortage of uranium damages this plan.
Chemical engineers, working as uranium recyclers, will be needed to convert bomb-grade uranium from warheads into low-enriched uranium for use in nuclear power plants to ensure that the uranium shortage does not cause an energy crisis.
3. Genetic Pharmer
Farmers of the future will not only raise livestock and agricultural crops, they will also grow plants than have been genetically engineered to grow therapeutic proteins, pharmaceuticals and chemicals. Hence they are Genetic ‘Pharmers’!
Chemical engineers are already working on producing vaccine carrying plants. A recent example of this has come to light in the ebola epidemic; tobacco plants have been engineered to grow the antibodies for the ebola serum.
I think this will be a key area in the future, where chemical engineers can have a huge role driving these processes further to achieve better results.
With advances in nanotechnology already offering a huge range of nanoscale processes, a new group of nano-chemical engineers will be required to manufacture these systems.
Nanotechnology essentially is just the manipulation of very small (or nano-the Greek for dwarf) matter measuring 1 to 100 nanometres.
Some experts think that the next decade will see an increase in manufacturing; Tim Page, senior policy officer at the TUC UK said "The UK will identify niche sectors of manufacturing that are highly skilled and knowledge-intensive," and this will be led by nanotechnology advances.
This explosion of technological advances in nanotechnology will lead to opportunities arising for chemical engineers to lead the way.
5. Vertical Agriculture Engineer
This is one area that is happening right now. The use of vertical farms could allow us to increase food production whilst taking restrictions on land use into account.
The concept of urban farms, stacked in towers or underground, with hydroponically fed crops and artificial lighting is gaining momentum. Chemical engineers would be well suited to these systems and could drastically increase our food yields and reduce further environmental damage.
This will negate the issue of ‘food miles’ by offering a method where all your food can be grown next door.
6. Simplicity Expert
This job is a bit more abstract than some of the others, but when I saw it listed I thought simplicity is what every chemical engineer strives to achieve. Through refining and optimising processes surely all chemical engineers should be called simplicity experts?
Simplicity experts will find ways to streamline and simplify day-to-day operations. In the future to save time we will need to condense three days of work to half an hour of work (although I already feel like I need to do this). Chemical engineers, who excel at math, have an eye for design and a keen sense of planning will do well in this line of work.
The world we live in today seems complex, so we often assume that it can only get more complicated in the future. The chemical engineers of the future will work to ensure that this is not the case by finding ways to simplify and streamline our processes.
7. 3-D Food Printer Engineers
Advances in 3-D printing are reported in the news frequently. The printers work by bonding material particles together layer by layer until a complete item is formed. It is suggested that this could be applied to food.
Many chemical engineers work in the food industry helping to refine products, scale them up for production and make them healthier. 3-D food printers would need chemical engineers to scale down these processes for use in individual printers.
Converting 3D printers to work with cartridges containing food-stocks will prove demanding on a number of levels. Chemical engineers can solve this kind of problem, e.g. by developing ingredient “cartridges” which can be inserted into the printers. NASA has already implemented a study to see how 3-D food printers would fare on space missions.
8. Green Process Engineer
The focus of all chemical engineers is to work sustainably. Corporations and consumers worldwide are increasingly embracing green technology e.g. at the IChemE awards in November we will be celebrating achievements in sustainable technology, water management and energy efficiency.
This is not a new area but I can only see these roles becoming increasingly important as new processes are used. Green process engineers will develop environmentally benign chemical processes and products, select processes that minimise pollution, use less hazardous materials and develop alternative reactions. This will all need to be done while meeting emerging regulations and laws.
9. Galactic Engineer
In the US, President Obama’s 2014 budget includes $105 million of funding for astronauts to reach an asteroid by 2025. This in itself offers many opportunities for chemical engineers, but if successful could lead to the mining of precious minerals in space.
Galactic chemical engineers will be needed to develop processes to mine distant asteroids or planets; designing systems that can work in the extreme conditions that outer space entails. Being able to assess and then use these new materials could offer new resources, elements and materials to improve the quality of life on Earth.
10. Climate Change Reversal Engineer
As the threats and impacts of climate change increase and manifest further, a new breed of chemical engineers will be needed to help reduce and reverse the effects of climate change. They will need to be able to apply multi-disciplinary solutions to solve a range of problems.
Chemical engineers are currently working on models that predict the outcomes of climate change and developing strategies to combat it. In the future they will need to work to develop long-term strategies to intervene before an anticipated climatic disaster occurs, to deal with climate events that are already happening and to try to help locations that have been devastated by climate change.
This work will typically involve developing energy strategies, refining alternative energy systems or protecting and rebuilding ecosystems.
There were many more areas I could see chemical engineers leading the way in, for example; Energy Storage, Zero Water Strategies, Alternative Food Design, Disposal Textiles Design, Land Fill Reclaim and GM Food.
However, I am also sure that some aspects of chemical engineering will never change. We will always need waste engineers, drug developers, researchers and food processors!
If you are already working in a cutting edge area that you think could drive future chemical engineering please get in touch and tell us your story!