Recycling Needs You

Article by Adam Duckett

David Hobson talks about his role in recycling and consulting on developing processes for the circular economy

IN THIS series, we speak to chemical engineers working outside of the fossil fuel sectors to highlight the breadth of opportunities open to those just starting their careers or seeking to change sectors.

David Hobson is the Engineering Lead at Axion Recycling, a UK-based firm that operates process plants that recover materials including plastics and metals from waste, and consults with clients to develop processes for the circular economy.

How does your work contribute to a greener future and what are the main responsibilities in your current role?

"Recycling and transitioning towards a circular economy are essential to reducing the burden we place on the planet’s natural resources. Recycling aluminium for example has been shown to use 95% less energy and save 97% of greenhouse gas emissions when compared to primary product processes. There are similarly significant savings to be had with using recycled plastics.

"When operated correctly, the recycling industry has an important part to play in ensuring that end-of-life plastics end up back in products again and not in the oceans. More work is required globally to ensure there is sufficient capacity in infrastructure to not only recycle waste plastics but also collect it in the first place.

"My role is quite varied in its breadth. Much of my focus is on the successful delivery of large capital investment projects. I am responsible for overseeing the initial development of the business case and then the design, installation and commissioning phases.

"When I was heavily involved in our consultancy division, I enjoyed the challenge of developing solutions to previously unsolved problems. I led the company’s efforts within an Innovate UK-funded project called REALITY. This project bought together partners from across the aluminium supply chain to develop a closed loop recycling process to take aluminium from end-of-life vehicles and process it in a way that next-generation products could be produced. From aluminium recovery to developing new recycling processes for coffee pods – it’s these cutting-edge ventures that really drive me. Taking the learning from R&D projects and installing an economically viable process is especially satisfying."

What aspects of chemical engineering do you apply in your everyday role?

"The technical design of most recycling processes requires a systems-based approach. It is this process in conjunction with core chemical engineering skillsets, laboratory work and practical problem solving that allows us to tackle challenging resource recovery questions."

You graduated from Imperial College London and worked in the oil and gas industry and in consultancy before moving to your current role in the recycling sector. You’re now working in what some might consider a less-traditional sector for chemical engineers. What chemical engineering skills were helpful or transferable?

"I think many of the core skills used by a chemical engineer in the more traditional industries are equally applicable to less-traditional industries. While I may not be running mass transfer calculations to design distillation columns, the approach to solving problems is similar. Mass and energy balances, process flow sheets, P&IDs and control systems still underpin everything we do. In addition to these core skills, the ability to communicate across disciplines, manage change and projects are the same across sectors.

"As a more traditional chemical engineer early on in my career I had an appreciation of emission, noise and vibration limits of equipment. The strong and direct link between society, waste and also legislation means that this appreciation proved to be quite transferable and important to help develop myself beyond an exclusively theoretical or practical skillset."

Hobson: 'In addition to core skills, the ability to communicate across disciplines, manage change and projects are the same across sectors.'

When applying for non-traditional chemical engineering jobs, what aspects unique to chemical engineering did you highlight to show you were the best candidate?

"As I was applying for a technical role in a different industry, I felt it was important to still show technical competence but focus particularly on my ability to learn. On top of this, I tried to highlight the wider aspects of the job that I felt would be common across industries such as cost management and communication with clients."

What are the key challenges in your sector that chemical/process engineers are well equipped to help address?

"The challenge of transitioning our current linear economy model from ‘take, make, dispose’ to a more sustainable circular economy is vast and creates many opportunities for engineers.

"There are numerous challenges to developing and running a successful recycling process. These include poor product design making recycling more complex; inconsistent feed streams; customer requirements for the recyclate; public perceptions; and government policy, to name but a few. It is therefore important for chemical and process engineers in the sector to be capable of working across multidisciplinary teams.

"While engineers do not necessarily need to be experts in all these areas, they do need to be able to mix technical proficiency with an ability to speak the language of other disciplines."

What advice would you give to a recent graduate or early careers chemical engineer who wants to work in your sector?

"While the waste industry has long been established, in many respects it is still a developing sector.

"In my view, the subject is not well covered at university. Most recycling processes also involve a significant number of mechanical processes, which, given the nonhomogeneous nature of most waste streams, can be challenging to consider theoretically. As such I would encourage any graduates interested in the sector to think practically when faced with challenging problems. They should also ask as many questions as they can and be prepared to listen to any experience around them. But given the developing nature of the industry, they should also not be afraid to challenge existing working practices if they have an idea.

"Also, my understanding of bulk solids handling has had to develop since leaving university. Almost all recycling processes involve a significant element of bulk solids handling and so it is essential to develop an understanding of these complex material streams."

What advice would you give to an engineer considering moving into your sector from a different sector?

"First and foremost, I would say don’t be afraid to apply. In my experience there are more crossovers from the more traditional sectors than may be immediately apparent. However, there is no denying that there are also fundamental differences to say the oil and gas industry. When it comes to the interview stage, in my experience, conducting even a small amount of research to gain some knowledge on the technical aspects, and some of the wider environmental and societal problems, will help set you apart."

Do you expect the need will grow in your sector for people with chemical engineering skills?

"Absolutely, we need more engineers of all disciplines. At a global level, most recycling rates are low and need to be improved. Running the transition from a linear economy and improving recycling rates however is a complex problem that will require numerous complicated engineering solutions. Chemical engineers with their systems-based approach to problems are therefore vital when considering problems that will require systemic changes to what we are currently doing.

"On a more technical note, there is some really exciting work going on in the field of chemical recycling. As the name suggests the chemical engineering skillset will be vital to this sector, which has the potential to be game changing for the industry."

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Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

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