Imagining What Chemical Engineering Will Look Like in 50 Years

Article by Duncan Barker CEng FIChemE

DUNCAN BARKER got in touch to share a prize-winning essay that he discovered his late father Andy had written 50 years ago imagining what life at Stanlow Refinery would look like in 2023.

Andy was an IChemE Fellow and it’s fascinating to see what aspects of our lives he got right back in 1973 (commonplace electric-powered transport, desktop computers used for engineering calculations, and automated audio-to-text transcriptions). There are a bunch where he was ahead of his time: self-driving cars, mass-scale synthetic food production, and electric steam generation. And a number where he was unfortunately well wide of the mark including a shorter working week and solar energy transmitted from space. We can but hope!


It’s fascinating to see what aspects of our lives he got right (commonplace electric-powered transport, desktop computers used for engineering calculations, and automated audio-to-text transcriptions

You can read Andy’s essay in full here.

“My father came second in the competition and won £40 for his efforts (worth the tidy sum of around £618.93 according to one online inflation calculator),” writes Duncan, himself also an IChemE fellow.

He goes on to say: “Given the coincidence of the dates involved and my father and mine’s long-standing membership of IChemE, I wondered if you might be interested in publishing an article on this?”

Well, we went a little further than that. Given he followed his father into chemical engineering, we couldn’t resist seeing if Duncan had inherited the literary gene too. Here’s his take on what life will be like at a plant 50 years from now…

My job at Teesside e-kerosene manufacturing plant in 2073 – Duncan Barker

“I wonder what life will be like in 2123?” was the question my boss raised via holographic image message as I started my working day from my habitation unit situated on an artificial floating platform in Norwegian waters. “I’ve been thinking about putting my body forward for those human hibernation trials where they reawaken you in 50 years. If the last 50 years are anything to go by then life should be even better by then so it seems like a good option. What do you think?”

“Well, Denzel”, I replied, tapping my forehead and activating the fitted chip under my skin that allowed me to operate my communication account, “I hear they are making great strides in nuclear fusion technology. With a bit of luck, the first reactors will be online in the next ten years. Then we will finally have energy for nothing! The price of a ticket to Mars should also be a lot cheaper and I know you have always wanted to go. Sounds worth a shot if you ask me.”

To be honest, I didn’t need this distraction. It was 4 July 2073, and I had a whole list of tasks to set up on my AI interface to understand why we were losing efficiency at our e-kerosene plant in Teesside (“e-kero-1”). Ever since UN secretary general Greta Thunberg had pushed through the UN global carbon tax agreement of 2045 (needed as not enough countries were going to achieve their net zero commitments by 2050), the only aviation fuel allowed was e-kerosene – refined from green hydrogen produced from solar energy captured in space and transmitted via radio waves to earth – and green CO2 ( from biomass or waste incineration, anaerobic digestion of organic waste, or direct air capture). Global demand for the product was around 4,000 TWhth and our plant in Teesside was one of the first commercial scale plants to be built. Operating since 2047, it was at the end of its design life and despite the 3D printer working overtime to produce replacement parts, the plant was showing its age.

Global temperatures dropping

I asked my AI interface to run some diagnostic checks and set my drones and operating robots to do some walkdowns and scans of the whole plant. That would take around three hours – plenty of time for me to eat my plant-based breakfast (meat is a luxury item that most people only have a handful of times per month) and take my medicine for my persistent asthma. Moving to Norway, one of the few places on Earth with a comfortable semi-tropical climate, had certainly helped my condition and the genetically specific medication was very effective. Most of the Earth was just too hot for me to live comfortably, but the benefits of finally reaching net zero in 2065 were beginning to be seen. Global temperatures were dropping, and the latest predictions were that we might be back to the weather of 1973 within the century. Living on a floating platform had become a cheaper and less risky option than land-based accommodation (which was more susceptible to extreme weather events) and a significant proportion of the 10bn global population were now living on various types of floating accommodation as land space not subject to regular flooding was at a premium.

I entered my holographic office which I shared with a bunch of fellow engineers from around the globe. It was easy to work from wherever you wanted, although the time-zone limitations remained. Fortunately, during resting times for workers outside your time zone you can still interact with their avatar which is a reasonable replica for how the person might think and respond. If someone isn’t happy with how the avatar responds while they are away, they make adjustments, and the improvements show themselves in time. Despite advancements in AI, the pure creativity of a human being was something it had failed to capture even after 50-plus years of development. This was why I always liked to reach out to Alissa. She was my “go to” problem solver. She was based on a similar floating platform somewhere in Antarctic waters. Although there was no South Pole cap anymore, the temperature near the Pole was bearable and it had become a popular location to live. She was unavailable (probably diving or surfing), but I was able to speak to her avatar.

“Hey there Alissa, I’m having more issues at the ekero-1 plant. I’ve run some solver iterations, but I can’t find the problem. The overall process efficiency keeps dropping and I think the problem lies in the Fischer-Tropsch synthesis reactor although the catalyst was only recently replaced. The inlet temperature is a bit low, but the reaction is holding at the design temperature. The sensor readings do not show any sulfur contamination either. The pressure drop is a bit high across the reactor, though. Any ideas?”

“Have you had the catalyst checked?”, suggested Alissa. “I know there were some instances of substandard performance at one of our plants in the US from a poorly manufactured catalyst a few months ago. If you’re sure the quality is OK, then I’d investigate that pressure drop a bit more closely. Have you done an imaging scan?”

My mind started to work through the different scenarios. “The lab robots ran the catalyst checks, and it was within range,” I replied. “And the robots should be finishing their diagnostic checks very soon. I requested a full imaging scan. Let me check the results and get back to you.”

“OK, try me when I wake up. My human self may have some better ideas,” was the rather odd response from Alissa’s avatar. It was second nature to think of people and their avatars as a single entity but at least the avatars still knew their place.

Immersive communication

The robots would be finishing their scans soon, so I just had time to experience an immersive communication from my friend and geologist Neo who was enjoying his third trip to the Moon colony. Although going to the moon was not much of a novelty these days, listening to him talk about the formation of the moon and the history within the rocks held my attention more than the individually targeted commercials that would regularly bombard my personal entertainment channel with offers of fun “low-g” sports activities you could do there. It was good to hear he was enjoying himself.

Towards the end of the comms, a message popped up saying the scans were complete. After finishing Neo’s message, I reviewed the data. The message “Unidentified object in the catalyst packing area” was the self-generated conclusion from the technology. I looked at the image and sure enough I could make out the shape of a large piece of plastic sheeting that had been trapped within the catalyst bed. Evidently the robots undertaking the catalyst loading had missed this. Such a simple issue and one which showed that, regardless of technological advances, it was often still the small and practical things which caused the headaches – the hard mathematical stuff was easy for the computers to deal with.

Still, at least I’d located the problem and, after a shutdown, a clean out and a restart, we would be back to full production. That meant I could keep my promise to go shark fishing with my friend Andy in Australia in a few days’ time. After all, making all this e-kerosene meant I could fly with a clean conscience. And, with energy prices still falling due to our cheap renewable energy from space, it was a lot more affordable than a trip to the Moon.

Duncan's father, Andy, died on 16 September 2023, aged 79

Article by Duncan Barker CEng FIChemE

Chief technology officer at Ignitis Renewables

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