A century of chemical engineering at UCL

Article by Adam Duckett

UCL Department of Chemical Engineering
David Bogle speaking at the Ramsay Society Dinner 2023

ICHEME president David Bogle has given a speech to students at University College London (UCL) in which he traced the history of the chemical engineering department as it celebrates its one hundredth birthday, and outlined why the role of chemical engineers is more important today than it has ever been. He was speaking at the annual dinner arranged by the chemical engineering department’s student-run Ramsay Society.

What follows is the text of the speech he gave:

“It is a great pleasure to talk to you all about centenaries. IChemE and UCL chemical engineering are both 100 this academic year. I’m a long-standing member of the department since 1990. For the last 15 years, I’ve been pro-vice-provost of the doctoral school here at UCL, and I’m currently the president of IChemE. I have managed to find some interesting sources to help make this [speech] interesting I hope – including a copy of the 50th anniversary edition of the Ramsay Society Journal, which I saved from a departmental office cleanout many years ago.

“1922–1923 was a key time for our profession and the industry it supports, following the end of the First World War. Let me read a short extract from The Chemical Engineer magazine: ‘During the First World War, Lord Moulton, who was director general of explosives supply, had insisted on the necessity of training chemical engineers to improve chemical plant design and efficiency. The idea of forming a dedicated body for chemical engineering took root but for years faced resistance, including from existing bodies and institutions. Despite this opposition, clamour among practising engineers grew.’

“So there was a clear consensus that there was a need for a more scientific approach to the design, construction, and operation of chemical plants, a distinct place in the educational system, and for chemical engineering to have its own qualifying body. The foundation of the department was in response to the second of these, and the foundation of the IChemE to the last.

“Following the death of the Nobel laureate and UCL professor of chemistry, Sir William Ramsay, the first university chair of chemical engineering in the UK was founded following a significant fundraising drive. The department was founded in 1923 with Professor Williams as its first head with a new building in Gordon Street. As we know from photos that used to be displayed in the department, the building scored a direct hit during the Second World War. You can still see the front of the building which now houses the physics department, but the inscription ‘Ramsay Memorial Laboratory of Chemical Engineering’ is blacked out. We were not the first to give courses in chemical engineering: George Davis gave courses in the late 19th century at the Manchester Technical College and there were courses at Battersea College, but UCL was the first university chair and department, which was significant.

“Williams moved to become head of Shell Research in San Francisco in 1928. The second employee was Mr Potter as chief mechanic. Many alumni may remember his daughter, Valerie, who joined the department as a secretary in 1957 and retired as departmental administrator in 1997.

“The 1973 Ramsay Society Journal has some nice reminiscences reflecting a small but willing department with a can-do spirit. One even mentioned ‘virtually private tuition’. A Dutchman came in 1935 to UCL to study chemical engineering because ‘it was the only country in Europe where this was possible’. In spite of the endowment, money was tight. Potter wrote in 1973: ‘I am amused when I think of the affluent conditions existing in the university when I retired and compare them with those in the early days of the department. Students had to pay for all the equipment they used, and in the beginning they even had to pay for the technician’s time.’

“There were always strong links between the department and IChemE. Professor Donald, who joined the department in 1931 and was Ramsay Professor from 1951–65, was for many years honorary secretary of the institution. I read a short reminiscence from Mr Woollatt of Unilever who had been a student from 34–36, and ran an evening course in the 40s to prepare students for the IChemE examinations. And Trevor Evans, who gained his PhD in the department, was general secretary [of IChemE] for 30 years until 2007.

“In 1944, discussions took place between industry, government, academia, and IChemE about increasing the numbers of chemical engineers. In the 1930s the UK government had decided there would be no refineries in the UK, but would rely on BP refineries in the Persian Gulf. This had to change and spurred the need for more chemical engineers, driving the formation of new departments at the universities of Birmingham, Leeds, Cambridge, and five technical colleges which later became universities, and further courses followed. There was even briefly a course at Kings College London – some of you may remember Ken Sutherland who went there.

“The post-war growth of the oil industry clearly had significance for IChemE with growth in numbers and a greater significance in becoming chartered. With a chemical engineering degree the route was clear, but those without had to take a written exam and what was called the ‘home paper’ to draw up plans for a complete unit. This was considered more stringent than the equivalent of other engineering institutions. Many from the UK and abroad took this route because of the excellent employment prospects.

“The 1970s saw the oil crisis caused by OPEC and this affected chemical engineering. I was interested to see in the 1973 Ramsay Society Journal edition Peter Rowe, who was Ramsay Professor from 1965–1985 and IChemE president in 1981, talked about how the department had looked to spread its expertise well beyond oil and gas. The journal has articles about electrochemical engineering, biochemical engineering, and fluidisation. Fluidisation, which began when Peter Rowe joined the Department from Harwell where it was being developed for the nuclear industry, continues strongly. Biochemical engineering flourished with the research group splitting off to become a separate department in 1997. Electrochemical engineering waned so it is good to see this reborn and now again so strong.

“Peter also commented in 1973 on decreasing numbers of students choosing to study chemical engineering. The national intake figures were cyclical over many years with numbers fluctuating between 700 and 1,000. Since the year 2000, numbers have grown very significantly, to a peak of 3,000. This is due to the success of the IChemE’s Whynotchemeng campaign, and also the recognition of the value of chemical engineering skills well beyond the traditional heartlands of oil and gas. Numbers have decreased a little in the last few years in the UK and elsewhere, as I was hearing in my recent visit as IChemE president to Malaysia, Singapore, and Australia. This is perhaps because we didn’t bring enough new employers along with us to demonstrate the broadening of chemical engineering, but I expect this to stabilise and grow again if we redouble our efforts to engage with new employers and sectors. We all need to clearly articulate the distinctive skillset of chemical engineering graduates.

“Student numbers at UCL have grown, particularly since 2000, as have staff numbers – although not proportionally. It is tough for young academic staff everywhere these days with very high expectations of research, teaching, outreach, and citizenship. Particularly at UCL where standards are very high, with a heavy emphasis still on outdated research metrics, and with bureaucracy seeming to be on a never-ending increase. I would just say to new staff not to try and overperform on all fronts all the time. It is a marathon not a sprint!

“Systems thinking has been at the heart of chemical engineering because of our need to manage complex production facilities. Systems thinking is also at the heart of the strategy of the Royal Academy of Engineering. I had always thought all engineering disciplines had systems at their heart, but this is not the case. The Royal Academy looks to IChemE and chemical engineering to lead when it comes to the need for systems thinking, particularly on sustainability and ways of addressing the climate emergency. When I joined UCL in 1990, research in systems engineering was new here, but we teamed with Imperial through a major grant from the SERC (now the EPSRC) to create the Sargent Centre for Process Systems Engineering. This continues today, making London the world leading centre for research in this area with 11 of our academic staff as members. I have worked for my whole career on systems engineering of chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing processes and beyond. For over a decade, I have worked on ‘systems engineering of the liver’ with colleagues in various medical and life science departments at UCL. To me, the liver is the body’s chemical factory!

“IChemE is currently developing a new strategy looking to 2028 and beyond. That chemical engineering is a key discipline in tackling the climate emergency will be at the heart of our strategy, helping IChemE direct its efforts to enable chemical engineers to address the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. I encourage you to look at the IChemE’s Sustainability Hub. The IChemE Trustees are particularly conscious of the need to better support early career chemical engineers, during studies but also as you transition to diverse careers. Membership of IChemE provides contacts, tools ,and information to help navigate the changing employment world.

“Perhaps more significantly, membership is a signal that you work to the high ethical standards set out in the Royal Academy of Engineering and Engineering Council’s Statement of Ethical Principles. I was asked a couple of years ago by those two bodies to chair a new Engineering Ethics Reference Group, and we published a report a year ago. While engineers are broadly trusted there have been some major tragedies that have brought this into question, such as the Boeing 737 Max and Grenfell tragedies. Neither of these were chemical engineering but we are not immune. You may have seen that we are exploring ethics in a series of articles in The Chemical Engineer magazine.

“The key message from our report is that we need to ensure we all ‘think ethics before action’. As we prepare alternative solutions and make recommendations to our managers or our clients, we should be ensuring that the ethical implications are considered and discussed. Course accreditation explores this and I know such issues are explored in parts of our course here at UCL. By becoming a member of a professional engineering institution such as IChemE we are demonstrating a commitment to ethical principles. This is a powerful force in recruiting potential young engineers who wish to work in an ethical profession.

“We have much to celebrate then in the past 100 years both for the department and the IChemE. Chemical engineers have a critical role to play in the next hundred years, particularly in tackling the climate emergency. Some in wider society see our role in this, but not enough do, so we need to be talking more about what we do – to policy makers but also to friends and neighbours. I used to say that going to a party and saying ‘I’m a chemical engineer’ was the best conversation stopper, but now I try and explain in terms of sustainability or how we contribute to everyday products or systems. I remember Peter Rowe musing to me once that he wondered whether process engineer might have been a better term. But I argued against it then as I do now, as that is a very limiting term. To me, chemical engineering is the ‘engineering of chemicals’: in the environment, in energy systems and infrastructure, in the development of cities and the countryside, and even in medicine where UCL is historically so strong and where we now have many collaborations. As well, of course, in our traditional industrial heartlands.

“The role for chemical engineers is more important today than it has ever been. The IChemE, the UCL department and all of you here today are playing your part in this. These may be challenging times, but it is clear to me that the future for chemical engineering is bright. We must work with others, but we are key players in tackling the climate emergency and are increasingly being seen as such. Here’s to the next 100 years!”

Gallery: photos of UCL students and staff gathered at the annual Ramsay Society Dinner on 24 February

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

Recent Editions

Catch up on the latest news, views and jobs from The Chemical Engineer. Below are the four latest issues. View a wider selection of the archive from within the Magazine section of this site.