In a new survey, published by the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), chemical engineers have voted for what they consider to be the most important chemically engineered inventions and solutions of the modern era – with drinking water, petrol and antibiotics topping the poll.
With a global population of over seven billion people, chemical engineers provide many of the foundations for the modern world by producing a vast array of products and solutions on an industrial scale including energy, healthcare, water and food production.
From a shortlist of over 40 inventions, chemical engineers(1) have voted for their most important chemically engineered solutions over the past century. The 10 inventions, considered to have made the biggest impact on society, were:
1. Drinking or potable water(2)
2. Petrol or gasoline (and other fuels including diesel)(3)
4. Electricity generation (from fossil fuels)(5)
9. Electricity generation (from non-fossil fuels)(10)
10. Dosed medications (such as tablets, pills and capsules)(11)
Some notable inventions which didn’t make the top 10 included biofuels (11th), contraceptives (12th), batteries (13th), the catalytic converter (14th), adhesives (28th), pneumatic tyres (39th) and photographic film (41st).
David Brown, IChemE’s chief executive, said: “Chemical engineering is a remarkable profession. It can take the smallest of discoveries in laboratories – from all fields of science and technology – and replicate them on a mass scale, consistently and economically.
“The facilities and plants built to deliver products like petrol and clean water are equally impressive. It is easy to forget how complex they are. Here too, chemical engineers make a major contribution to the design and operation of industrial facilities, and their safe management.
“Historically, it is clear that chemical engineers have enabled society to evolve and quality of life to improve. And this will continue.
“As the global population grows to an estimated nine billion by 2050, issues like energy generation, the management of health, water supply and food production will become more challenging. They are issues that chemical engineers are already looking at to find the next generation of sustainable solutions.”
The role of chemical engineers in modern society is explored in IChemE’s latest technical strategy, Chemical Engineering Matters.
The shortlist and top 10 of best chemically engineered inventions were voted for by the Institution of Chemical Engineers’ MediaEnvoys. MediaEnvoys are volunteers from IChemE’s global membership and are responsible for promoting public understanding and awareness of chemical engineering, worldwide. Find out more about MediaEnvoys.
2. Drinking or potable water
Water is fundamental to life. In the US, some estimates suggest a typical household uses over 250 litres of water each day for drinking, toilet use, laundry, washing and other uses. Access to a stable and safe supply of clean drinking water continues to be a major concern in many countries and can account for a high proportion of household disposable income.
Water quality is regulated in most developed countries. In general, the methods used include physical processes such as filtration, sedimentation, and distillation; biological processes such as slow sand filters or biologically active carbon; chemical processes such as flocculation and chlorination; and the use of electromagnetic radiation such as ultraviolet light.
The methods used to produce clean water vary across the world and is often dependent on climate and economics. Desalination is common across the Mediterranean, Middle East and Australia. Solar water disinfection is used as a low-cost method of purifying water especially in countries with hot climates and developing economies.
Ensuring there is sufficient and clean water in the future is one of the major global challenges.
IChemE MediaEnvoy Deborah John, a chemical engineering student in Malaysia, said: “Many people in developing and first world countries take for granted the ability to obtain fresh water at the turn of a tap or faucet.
“But the chemical engineering and scale of activity needed to achieve the provision of safe, clean water is huge and highlighted by the challenge faced by many developing countries that do not yet have the infrastructure or skills to provide reliable and safe drinking water to its population.
“The provision of clean water, its recycling, storage, conservation and more efficient use will become more important as the world’s population grows to nine billion people by 2050.”
3. Petrol or gasoline (and other fuels including diesel)
Few inventions have had a greater impact on society than the combustion engine, petrol and the motor car. Global consumption of petrol, heating oil and other petroleum products reached a record high of 88.9 million barrels a day in 2012. It powers in excess of one billion cars estimated to be on the world’s roads.
Petrol is produced in oil refineries by distillation from crude oil. Distillation is one of the most important processes in chemical engineering and the distillation column is considered an iconic symbol by many chemical engineers for their profession.
The process for producing petrol at refineries involves using heat to separate out different products at different boiling points. Some of these products, such as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and kerosene are ready for use as heating or transport fuels. Others pass through a distillation column where heat and pressure cause a chemical reaction that transforms them into higher value products.
IChemE MediaEnvoy Azhar Ashfaq, a senior process engineer in Australia, said: “Petrol and other products derived from crude oil have a major impact on our lives every day.
“From water bottles and shopping bags to fertilizers, soap, water pipes, boats and perfumes, it is all due to the fractions and their derivatives. In fact, chemical engineering helps to produce 6,000 products from crude oil.
“But it is the impact of petrol as a fuel in automobiles that has helped society to be more efficient, mobilised and more productive that justifies petrol being in the top three of chemically engineered inventions of the modern era.”
4. Antibiotics or Antibacterials
Our knowledge of antibacterial agents developed in the 1870s and resulted in the discovery of penicillin in 1928 by Alexander Fleming. The term antibiotic was first used in 1942 and refers to an agent that kills or inhibits the growth of specific bacteria.
Antibiotics – also known as antibacterials – are one of the most commonly prescribed drugs. In the US, it is estimated that 190 million doses of antibiotics are prescribed each day. In the UK, around 40 million prescriptions for antibiotics are prescribed annually. Antibiotics are used for illnesses such as ear infections, syphilis, tuberculosis, salmonella and some forms of meningitis.
Antibiotics are produced industrially by a process of fermentation, where the source microorganism is grown in large containers (100,000-150,000 litres or more). The types of antibiotics produced include natural, semi-synthetic and fully synthetic variants.
IChemE MediaEnvoy, Alfredo Ramos Plasencia, a UK vice president working in the process industries, said: “Antibiotics have radically changed society. What today are regarded as routine infections, were considered deadly diseases before the discovery and synthesis of penicillin by Fleming, Florey and Chain.
“Most of us will be aware of this, but what is not so obvious to most is that transplant surgery, where the patient’s immune system has to be suppressed to avoid the rejection of the new organ, would not be feasible without antibiotics. The impact of antibiotics on humanity can be quantified in millions of lives saved since Fleming’s and Florey’s findings, and the work of chemical engineers.”
5. Electricity generation (from fossil fuels)
Electricity generation from fossil fuels – such as coal, gas and oil – has emerged as the dominant source of global energy over the past century since the first public power station was built in 1882.
Despite the growth of renewable energy it will continue to be the main source of energy for the foreseeable future with over 50,000 coal fired power stations in operation worldwide. Growing economies like China and India are expected to build another 200 coal fired power stations over the next four years.
IChemE MediaEnvoy, Hani Baluch, a petroleum engineer in Scotland, said: “People all around the globe use energy on a daily basis, and energy consumption has become such a ubiquitous necessity that many of us take it for granted and can barely imagine a world without flicking on a light or immediate access to the internet.
“We often do not consider the enormous amount of work that has gone into providing us with these essentials of everyday life.
“The basic method of electricity generation developed by Michael Faraday in the early nineteenth century is still applied today. It’s amazing to consider how this elementary design has revolutionised the way we live.
“The pursuit of hydrocarbon resources dominates global politics and economic development, and electricity generation will continue to play a pivotal role in the climate change debate. Electricity generation and fossil fuels have had huge economic and socially transformative effects and will continue to do so. And chemical engineers will continue to develop and improve these processes.”
Vaccines are a biological preparation that improves immunity to specific diseases. They stimulate the body’s immune system to recognise and kill specific microorganisms which cause disease.
Vaccines can be traced back to the late eighteenth century when Edward Jenner identified the effects of a cowpox inoculation on smallpox. Since then, vaccines have been used successfully against major diseases including diphtheria, measles, mumps, rubella, polio vaccine and the eradication of smallpox during the 1960s and 1970s.
The production of vaccines has several stages and can be complex. Bioreactors are used to grow bacteria and other chemically engineered processes can include ultrafiltration and column chromatography.
MediaEnvoy Adam Hawthorne, a process engineer based in the UK, said: “Vaccines are a true marvel of the modern world. Billions of people have received immunisation benefits for targeted diseases. Vaccination programmes have reduced rates of infant mortality, allowing communities to send children to school and breaking the cycle of poverty. The eradication of smallpox, a 74 per cent reduction in childhood deaths from measles and the near-eradication of polio are just some of the differences they have made.
“And this work is continuing as new challenges face society including pandemics such as swine and bird flu, and cancers affecting both men and women caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). The vital role of chemical engineering will be to turn solutions to those challenges into life sustaining products.”
Most plastics are organic polymers with high molecular mass. They are mostly made from organic raw materials such as cellulose, coal, natural gas and crude oil.
The mass production of plastics started in the 1940s and 1950s following the discovery of several different types of plastics. In 1933, polyethylene – often used for plastic bags – was discovered by Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI). Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) was discovered in 1941 and became widely used instead of glass bottles. In the 1950s Polypropylene was developed and used in many products including cars, pens and textiles.
Due to their relatively low cost, ease of manufacture, versatility and imperviousness to water, plastics are used in an enormous and expanding range of products, from paper clips to spaceships. They have already displaced many traditional materials, such as wood, stone, bone, leather, paper, metal, glass, and ceramics.
IChemE MediaEnvoy Thaddeus Anim-Somuah, a process engineer based in The Netherlands, said: “It is difficult to conceive of modern living without plastics. Versatile, lightweight and tough, it is no surprise that worldwide demand for plastic has risen from 1.7 million tonnes in 1950 to 280 million tonnes in 2011. That trend is expected to continue.
“Innovations in plastics have also supported improvements for many other products and industries. In particular, the construction, automobile and textile industries have been able to develop new products.
“Health has benefited – the simple task of storing and supplying clean water in plastic bottles or down lightweight pipes has saved many lives.
“The food industry has been transformed by plastic packaging. Manufacturers, retailers and consumers have benefited from extended shelf lives. Even the environment has benefited from plastics by helping to reduce the amount of materials needed for packaging and the energy required to transport goods.
“Plastics fully deserve to be in the top 10 of chemically engineered products and they will continue to evolve and change especially in relation to sustainability.”
Fertilizer is added to soil to supply one or more nutrients essential to the growth of plants. It has the effect of increasing crop yields. Fertilizer production is now a major global industry and has supported significant worldwide population growth.
The major breakthrough in fertilizer production came at the beginning of the twentieth century when Fritz Haber developed the first practical process to convert atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia – a form which can be used by plants.
Fertilizer generated from ammonia produced by the Haber process is estimated to be responsible for sustaining one-third of the Earth’s population and half of the protein within human beings is made of nitrogen that was originally produced by the process.
IChemE MediaEnvoy Hasan Baqar, an operations manager, based in Pakistan, said: “Human survival is dependent on the use of fertilizers – either organic or inorganic. Almost half the people on the Earth are currently fed as a result of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer use. Estimates report 30 to 50 per cent of crop yields are attributed to natural or synthetic commercial fertilizer.
“Quite simply, current food demand and supply could not be met without the use of fertilizer and chemical engineers.”
Sanitation is the safe disposal of waste such as human faeces to protect public health. Sanitation has been around since before Roman times. Historically, poor sanitation has been responsible for millions of deaths. It is estimated that preventable water diseases continue to kill up to five million people each year, mostly in developing countries.
Chemical engineers are central to the treatment of waste. They are also involved in the recycling, composting and conversion of waste to biofuels.
IChemE director of policy and communication, Andy Furlong, said: “Sanitation, or the disposal of sewage and supply of clean drinking water, has come a long way since the first use of activated sludge treatment in Manchester, England in the late nineteenth century. Today, chemical engineering remains central to the protection of human health.
“Expanding populations and urbanisation means that the demand for effective waste treatment technologies is more pressing than ever before. Chemical engineers are continuing to develop purification processes using techniques like adsorption, membrane separation and advanced oxidation with ultra violet light. They are also working to reduce the environmental impact of sewage sludge disposal, including making good use of this unpleasant stuff as a raw material for biodiesel.
“It’s said that the water in a modern city passes through at least 10 people before being flushed into the sea. If that thought disturbs you, then be thankful for the work of the chemical engineers who make your water safe to drink.”
10. Electricity generation (from non-fossil fuels)
Electricity generation from nuclear, wind, solar, biomass, biofuels and hydropower are viewed by many as the solution to low carbon energy production and as a replacement for fossil fuels in the decades to come. Many countries now have targets for renewable energy production to help combat climate change.
It’s also an area of significant technological change and investment. In 2014 the world’s largest gasification plant is scheduled to open in the UK, capable of powering 50,000 homes from 350,000 tonnes of biomass (municipal solid waste) each year.
IChemE MediaEnvoy Andrew Baines, a graduate performance engineer, based in Germany, said: “Electricity generation from non-fossil fuels is absolutely the key to the future of life as we know it.
“Electricity is essential to the way we live. Without electricity we cannot feed or water our cities, we cannot travel, and the communication and control systems our society has learned to rely upon would simply not function. Whatever one’s views on climate change, it is no secret that fossil fuels will one day be exhausted, and we will have to learn to generate electricity without them.
“From the beginning of non-fossil fuel electricity generation, chemical engineers have been right at the centre of the revolution – designing the cooling systems for nuclear reactors, driving forward production methods for photo-voltaic cells, and analysing flow patterns around wind turbine blades are just three examples.
“Electricity generation from non-fossil fuels easily earns its place in the top 10 of chemical engineering inventions.”
11. Dosed medications (such as tablets, pills and capsules)
Dosed medication in the form of pills first appeared before Roman times. Tablets and capsules were developed in the nineteenth century.
From the twentieth century onwards, the mass production of tablets, pills and capsules have transformed medication to improve health and combat diseases. They provide an accurately measured dosage in a convenient portable package. They can also protect unstable medications or disguise unpalatable ingredients.
The production of dosed medications is dependent on chemical engineering principles to ensure the correct amount of medication is contained in each tablet, pill or capsule. All ingredients have to be well-mixed.
For tablets, some ingredients must be granulated prior to compression to assure an even distribution of the active compound in the final tablet. Other ingredients in tablets include lubricants and binders to aid production and consumption.
MediaEnvoy Keith Plumb, a UK process and equipment consultant, said: “Dosed medication – in the form of tablets, injections and others – has transformed the health of the human race in a remarkably short space of time. However, to ensure that this medication can be mass produced in a manner that leads to the correct quality and purity in the quantities required requires manufacturing on a large scale. This manufacturing has benefited significantly from the application of chemical engineering.
“Chemical engineers also have a major input into precursor chemicals that are used to make the final products. For example, approximately 70 per cent of the active ingredient chemicals contain a chlorine atom that is initially derived from sodium chloride that is processed in large chemical complexes.
“Not only are the medicines themselves produced thanks to the help of chemical engineers, so are the materials use to package them – such as blister packs – along with the medical equipment required to provide the dosage such as syringes.”
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