Question Time: Celebrate, Communicate, Inspire

Article by Adam Duckett

L–R: David Bogle, Jane Cutler and Nigel Hirst discuss themes for chemical engineers

As IChemE wraps up its Centenary year, Adam Duckett looks to the important contributions needed next

ICHEME’S presidential trio met to record their thoughts about IChemE’s Centenary year and share what they think are the key lessons and next steps. The session was chaired by IChemE Deputy President Nigel Hirst who set the scene, saying: “The Centenary, which we branded ChemEngEvolution has been two years in creation and is the work of over 100 volunteers; both members and friends of IChemE from across the world. Our key slogan is ‘A century of achievements, a future of success’. We spent 50% of our effort looking into the future and see an important role for chemical engineers in the sustainable development of the planet over the next 100 years.”

The topics discussed during the Centenary were framed around nine themes taken from the UN’s Sustainability Development Goals. Hirst said: “These highlight the enormous contribution that chemical engineers have made to the world in the last century and also provide a lens through which we can identify the actions chemical engineers should take to help society evolve in a sustainable way.”

He opened the discussion by asking IChemE President David Bogle, and Past-President Jane Cutler which of the themes had captured their attention.

Bogle said the biggest one was the centenary’s opening theme of “sustainability and the environment” and that chemical engineers can use their system thinking skillset to holistically help address the climate crisis challenge. “This is right at the heart of what we do as chemical engineers. We’re really key to help mitigate the climate emergency and find solutions.”

Cutler said: “The key one for me was the role that chemical engineers will play in the energy transition. It’s clear that most or all countries around the world, governments and communities, are making decisions to reduce their carbon footprint, but it’s not going to be instantaneous and if we’re not careful there will be unintended consequences. The burden of the energy transition won’t necessarily be felt in a fair, just and equitable manner. And we may, if we’re not careful, shift one set of problems to another set of problems. I think that’s where chemical engineers and chemical engineering comes in because it’s about applying systems thinking so we get the lowest net impact, whether that’s financial or environmental or safety.”

She also said the materials theme had left an impression. Cutler noted that “we can be a lot lighter in our use of materials” and posed questions for chemical engineers to consider in their work: “We can reuse, repurpose, recycle but we can also say ‘is this the best material for the job? How do we get it with the lowest transportation miles? How do we get it with the lowest processing impact? Is this really, in a systems-wide approach, the most sustainable solution for this particular problem or opportunity?’”

Bogle also picked out the health topic, which discussed the role that chemical engineers can play in providing broader access to medicines, and the built environment topic. “There were some really nice thoughts about optimising the flow through the built environment of all the materials, and energy and waste. As well as producing the fuels and the energy supplies…I think we can play a part in that built environment, so we’ve got a much broader footprint than many people conceive of chemical engineering.”

Speaking up and safe spaces

Hirst asked whether there is a role for chemical engineers in educating politicians and the public.

Cutler replied: “I think there’s a role for all of us to educate, whether it’s at the micro – how you make you better decisions in your home, turn the thermostat down, turn the lights off. But [also] at a community level, at a workplace level. It’s nice to think politicians will listen but it’s really important that we work with the departments and the policy advisors so that they get good information from a range of sources and then they can make whatever decision they make…based on good information.”

Hirst asked Bogle to talk about his presidential theme of ethics, what it means to an individual engineer, and how ethics should inform their day-to-day work.

Bogle said the key was the strapline to the report on ethics that he helped create for the Royal Academy of Engineering: Think ethics before action. “That’s quite a challenging prospect for everybody. Often there are not clear-cut decisions, and it requires real discussion and the exploration of different viewpoints.”

He described the ethical principles published by the Engineering Council as “a statement of values” that professional engineers stand up for because they know their work will have impact on society.

“It’s a value proposition for being a chartered engineer. But it’s also very important for drawing young people into engineering as a profession. Young people want to tackle these sustainability challenges. They want to have an ethical professional career and feel they are really making a positive contribution. Being clear, and encouraging and developing this ethical mindset is right at the heart of what we do and what we need to do at university too, to be talking about this much more to give people the language to have these conversations. I feel we don’t do this enough.”

Bogle said chemical engineers need to be able to communicate with society about the risks and trade-offs of their engineering decisions. Universities should provide a safe space for students to practise having these discussions.

Cutler suggested there might be an opportunity for IChemE to provide training and development on ethics, in a similar vein to the Sustainability Hub it launched in 2022 for engineers at all career stages to update their skills and knowledge of sustainability.

Hirst wrapped up the discussion, saying: “There’s a wealth of interesting and dare I say it exciting information on the ChemEng Evolution website…I do encourage everybody to take a look at this wonderful repository of knowledge that has been created by volunteers…We hope that it will continue to both inform and inspire the direction of chemical engineers, the chemical engineering profession, the Institution of Chemical Engineers and indeed other engineering organisations well into the next hundred years.”

The Centenary online

Watch a recording of this discussion on IChemE’s YouTube page:

Visit the Centenary website to read historical reflections written by volunteers and for links to recordings of all nine of the future-focussed webinars where chemicalengineers gathered to discuss how we can contribute to sustainability and the environment, education and technology, social experience, energy, processes and safety, food and water, built environment and transport, health, and materials:

The chemical engineer who inspired me? With the centenary strapline “celebrate, communicate, inspire”, IChemE asked its Past Presidents to write about the chemical engineer who inspired them most. Among the 17 engineers profiled are Margaret Hutchinson Rousseau, Robert Langer, David Wood, Trevor Kletz, and Jim the process operator.

Read them all here:

Read IChemE’s Centenary Blog series, which includes articles from volunteers who helped throughout the year:

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

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