Question Time: Safety

Article by Kerry Hebden

Experts gathered to discuss new safety challenges for a sustainable era. Kerry Hebden reports

IN the fifth instalment of IChemE’s centenary webinar series, an expert panel of chemical engineers discussed safety and what it means to the future of the industry when sustainability is increasingly at the heart of everyday decision-making.

Moving straight into the questions, Tom Lakey asked the panel how chemical engineering can contribute to more sustainable practices in the coming decades, and what are the main challenges faced? Dame Judith Hackett explained that for her, the challenge is about redesigning processes but within faster timescales than what is currently being considered. It is time that we re-thought many of the processes that we have been running for many years now, which are inherently unsustainable and energy intensive, she said. Alluding to the climate crisis faced today, Dame Judith said that we need to grasp the size of the problem, speed up the pace of solutions, and work with other disciplines to make the most effective changes. “I don’t see this as evolution at all. I think this is about revolution,” she said.

Echoing the same sentiment, Trish Kerin acknowledged that it is everyone’s job to work together for a more sustainable planet, and when it comes to safety, now is not the time for complacency. “When we see a plateau in safety results, then we really have to change up our thinking, challenge the status quo and do something different,” Kerin said.

Kerin raised a further interesting point about how the industry is perceived from an outsider’s point of view and how that relates to risk perception: “People take a lot of risk in real life where they perceive they have control. But they don’t like handing over risk when they don’t perceive they have control. Just like the chemical plant down the road. Many would view it as an unacceptable risk because they have no control over that.” Risk communication and education should help alleviate the fear of disasters, and the common misunderstandings that come with the industry, Kerin explained.

“When we see a plateau in safety results, then we really have to change up our thinking, challenge the status quo and do something different”

There seemed to be no doubt among the panel that a new era in sustainability practices needs to be ushered in. One that takes into account updated safety measures and a multidisciplinary approach, and one that needs to happen soon. “Today, I think we have a whole new game. We need to move to renewable resources, we need to move from hydrocarbon fuel to carbohydrate fuel, which is a massive change […] and we need to do this in an innovative and safe way”, said Ian Shott. In terms of the scale of recyclability and circular economy that goes with such a momentous shift in practices, Shott reiterated just how important these changes need to be. “I think we should be seeing this as the next Industrial Revolution,” he said.

“I think we should be seeing this as the next Industrial Revolution”

Mitigating against daily hazards

Fraught with more hazards than many professions, chemical engineers now have to contend with a wider range of problems such as technological disasters triggered by natural hazards due to climate change. Preventing earthquakes and tsunamis is impossible, but what about occupational hazards where work is frequently centralised and at bulk scale, while high temperatures, pressures and artificial catalysts are often used? Answering the question of how these aspects will change, given the safety and sustainability pressures routinely faced today, David Edwards proposed that producing hazardous materials (like chlorine) in situ to limit transportation makes sense. Not only does it have the added benefit of smaller inventories, but it also increases supply security.
He referred to recent events that have demonstrated how easily supply chains can be disrupted, a situation that could be somewhat avoided if you have control over your own supply.

It was noted, however, that by decentralising production, more high pressure and high temperature reactors potentially would be needed in the process chain. How then, do you maintain a balance between safety and supply? Keeping small scale with perfect containment would be preferable, Edwards said, while acknowledging the cost involved in such an operation. But, he said, we should not be a slave to conventional economics, and if we can move towards processes that are more benign, like those found in nature, then we should. “All kinds of chemistry is going on at low temperatures and pressures [in nature]. There is much more that can be done in those areas when it comes to catalysts and enzymes,” said Edwards.

Future safety challenges

Looking forward, the panel agreed that although renewable energy is the future, there are still many challenges to consider such as how to store energy from these sources when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. Using spare electricity to generate hydrogen was discussed, but current tried-and-tested methods such as lithium-ion batteries are still seen as the main go-to solution. These though can present safety issues of their own. “There are big challenges with lithium-ion batteries,” Shott said. “As far as I can see, not all of the safety implications have been worked out yet.” Relying on HAZOPs is a good place to start, concurred the panel, but is not necessarily a great technique to really understand issues such as lithium battery fires, or hydrogen containment.

Last, but not least, the issue of safety beyond physical hazards – specifically digitilisation and how it might affect the safety of the industry – was discussed. The consensus was that despite misunderstandings around some facets of IT such as artificial intelligence (AI), the boom in innovation in the long run would be a benefit.

“I think chemical engineers in the world of process systems engineering can move a long way forward in gathering high quality data and using machine learning (ML) algorithms to give much higher levels of analysis and predictability,” Shott said.

Everyone agreed, however, that although there are many advantages to be had, there is a danger that humans become too reliant on computer-controlled systems by thinking that they are inherently safe.

“Used in the right way, digitilisation will help us to deliver better safety and sustainability,” Dame Judith said.

The Panel concluded that there is a balance to be had between better knowledge, better understanding and better control systems, but on the flip side, it should always be recognised there is a risk of things going wrong and that we should never be complacent.

Join the centenary discussion! Next up: Built Environment & Transport Webinar

Register for the 10 August webinar here:

Submit your questions for the panel ahead of the webinar here:

For more on the centenary, including the food and water webinar, which occurs shortly before this issue reaches readers, and historical reflections from
IChemE members, visit the dedicated website:

Article by Kerry Hebden

Staff reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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