Question Time: Sustainability

Article by Adam Duckett

Experts gather to discuss our discipline’s future in terms of sustainability and the environment

IN THE first webinar held to celebrate IChemE’s Centenary, the discipline was issued with a wakeup call to bring about changes that will impact consumption and sustainability. Panellists discussed the need to take action despite uncertainty, and what inspires them to be optimistic.

For its centenary year, IChemE has given each month a theme, and February’s was sustainability. IChemE volunteers are hosting a virtual panel discussion for each theme to answer questions from members and share their thoughts on the future of the profession. Malcolm Wilkinson, Chair of the Sustainability SIG, introduced the first webinar: Consumption: driving and defining issues of the future. How should chemical engineers respond?

Pointing to the definition of sustainability given by ecological economist Tim Jackson – “sustainability is the art of living well within ecological limits” – Wilkinson discussed a model for sustainable development that balances the relationship between three forms of capital: natural capital; financial and asset capital; and human and social capital. But he warned that our excessive rate of consumption is driving climate change, biodiversity loss, resource depletion and inequality.

“We must learn to design and build systems which lie at the intersection of the three components of the sustainable development model…and avoid further degradation of the environment. To deliver this objective we must apply the concepts of the circular economy using a broad systems-based approach, based on our technical and economic evaluation specialisms overlaid by our sustainability principles,” he said.

He noted that since the conversion of materials into useful products is fundamental to chemical engineering, the profession and individual engineers must take a prime role in addressing the issues.

“This I believe is a wakeup call for chemical engineers – both collectively and individually to seize the opportunity to drive progress to a sustainable world. This is a challenge we are uniquely trained to deliver on and if we don’t accept it who can?”

“This is a wakeup call for chemical engineers – both collectively and individually to seize the opportunity to drive progress to a sustainable world”

Key contributions

There followed a 45-minute panel discussion with questions taken from the audience.

The panel was asked what is the most important contribution that the discipline can make to achieve the sustainable future we all aspire to?

Mary Stewart, CEO of consulting firm Energetics, and President of Australia’s Energy Efficiency Council, said it is imperative that chemical engineers pay attention to existential risks, including increasing temperature and changing rainfall patterns.

“We have to design for an unstable natural environment with much greater extremes in weather, understand legislation and policy, and look to future changes,” Stewart said. “There’s not one single right answer anymore. The best we can hope for is to design that system or that process that is least likely to be wrong in the face of these huge uncertainties.”

Pratima Rangarajan, CEO of the billion-dollar OGCI Climate Investments fund, asked chemical engineers to consider what existing processes they can fix today to reduce problems tomorrow.

“I really do believe that chemical engineers should drive home that driving efficiency in processes is a badge of our honour,” she said, noting that we need to celebrate such action as we do for those who create a “shiny new product”.

“We don’t reward cleaning up our systems, and those chemical engineers who work on that in industry do not get the kudos. We’ve got to make it our badge of honour, because we’re wasting resources.”

The panel was asked whether there were any tools that they would recommend.

Mark Apsey, Chair of the IChemE Energy Community of Practice, recommended the free Energy and Resource Efficiency Good Practice Guide published by IChemE which includes ten principles that will help engineers identify opportunities for improvement (

Joanna Snape, Innovation Manager at Eon, recommended project management tools including VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity) that help you think about how to address complexity when you can’t avoid it.

Pointing towards the success that chemical engineers have had in developing tools like HAZOP to formally address safety, Stewart noted that what came first was the desire for change. Rangarajan added that it’s critical to understand what outcomes we’re working towards: “Leaders said we want 0% fatalities; zero accidents…So the outcome was clear.”

Rangarajan explained that her investment fund had been told that there was no way of measuring methane emissions so no way to fix it. So the fund invested in satellites, drones and AI to provide the measurements they needed to provide numbers and quantify an outcome. “To me, everything simplifies if we’re clear on where we want to get to.”

Stewart urged companies to begin making changes today. “The mistake is not choosing the wrong technology, it’s not acting. There isn’t a perfect tool. There’s isn’t an ‘exactly right way’…be committed, get your management on side and start taking action.”

Cause for optimism

Finally, the panellists were asked to give an example of an unsustainable process or a product that been put on a sustainable footing that gives them optimism.

Stef Simons, Emeritus Professor of Energy Systems at Brunel University, discussed the HERU device that processes domestic waste into resources (p20, issue 944), and the change in focus he has seen at the recent UN COP climate conference. “What I saw there gave me a lot of optimism. A lot of community-led projects, lots of pressure from finance [to invest in greener projects].”

The focus on community had previously been discussed by Snape, who urged chemical engineers to adjust their projects to local needs, to consider using local raw materials and resources that might help make people more receptive.

Rangarajan is inspired by a cement company her fund is scaling up whose process reduces CO2 output by 75% and water consumption by 80%. Apsey is inspired by growth in offshore wind helped by skills from oil and gas; and the levels of motivation among IChemE volunteers and the potential that promises for making a difference.

“What inspires me is human imagination,” Stewart said. “The human imagination is what is going to get us out the other side of this. That’s what gives me hope going forward.”

Watch the webinar recording:

Join the centenary discussion!

Next up: Shaping the future of Chemical Engineering Education

In the coming centenary webinar, chemical engineers will share their views on how education can deliver the industry needs of the future.

The panellists who will be answering your questions include Jarka Glassey, former Chair of IChemE’s Education SIG; David Shallcross, former Editor-in-Chief of the journal Education for Chemical Engineers; Senior Business Developer Sadaf Hemmani; and Operations and Process Engineer Manager Daniel Wielechowshi.

Blogging on the topic, IChemE Fellow John Kenez, who was part of the editorial panel looking at the centenary theme of education and technology, wrote: “The future chemical engineer will be dealing with complex problems, some of which we can’t yet understand, and students need to be trained accordingly. Along with the traditional disciplines, data analytics and digitalisation will be important, as will discussions on ethics, philosophy, and communication.”

Register for the 9 March webinar here:

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

Kenez’ blog will be live from 1 March here:

And for more on the centenary, including historical reflections from IChemE members, visit the dedicated website:

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

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