John McGagh takes office as IChemE president

Article by Staff Writer

JOHN MCGAGH, chief digital officer at renewable energy supplier Snowy Hydro, has been inaugurated as the new president of IChemE.

Jonathan Seville, the 2016 president, formally handed over office and chains at the Institution’s annual general meeting at the International Convention Centre (ICC) in Birmingham on 10 May.

Seville, who has attended more than 70 engagements as IChemE president, said that he has had a “tremendous year” and thanked members for making him feel so welcome.

“What it has reinforced for me is the immense diversity in the kinds of jobs that chemical engineers do around the globe, which makes me even more determined that we should have a broad, open and welcoming definition of what it means to be an engineer,” he said.

McGagh said that it was “truly an honour” to become president of IChemE, having been proud to count himself as a chemical engineer since his graduation from the University of Bradford in 1976. His presidential address, Chemical Engineers – Thriving in an Exponential World, was a fascinating look at the way chemical engineering is changing, and how new technologies and cognitive computing skills will change and enhance the way chemical engineers work.

Like Seville, McGagh highlighted the sheer breadth of the chemical engineering profession. His own varied experience has seen him working for whisky firm William Grant, at Esso’s Fawley refinery in the UK, in plastics, chemicals and mining, working on both the business and procurement side of industry and in the hard engineering side. He said that traditional industries like oil and gas and petrochemicals are “deep in the DNA” of chemical engineers and of IChemE.

“But look at what’s happening around us. Jonathan Seville made this point last year, that there are other industries growing up around us. We are everywhere, we move into places. Biotechnology, when I went to university, was just a dream. The production of fuels from genetically modified crops, fast moving consumer goods, energy and energy storage,” said McGagh. “These are just opportunities. We’re not turning our back, we can’t, on our traditional roots, but we can grow into these areas.”

Another way that the industry is changing is connectivity. Within his lifetime McGagh has seen an industry move from slide rules, to punch cards, to mainframe computers, to desktop computers, to tablet computers, and now, to cloud computing. As data storage gets cheaper and cheaper, new and better ways to use this data will be found. The next stage of this, said McGagh, will be cognitive computing, using exponentially more data from increasingly connected plants to make process plants more efficient and safer than ever.

“What do we as engineers look like when these things come online?” McGagh asked. “We have the wisdom, the profession, of 44,000 people behind us, we just have new tools. What can we do, when contained on your iPhone is the sum knowledge of everything we ever knew about thermodynamics? And we can talk to them, and interact with them?”

McGagh played a video from Australian firm Woodside, which is already using an IBM Watson cognitive computing system to help run its offshore oil rigs. The system can take all the data from written records and computers, from when a rig is turned on, analyse it, and look for indicators and patterns, giving each engineer the benefit of the experience of every engineer that has gone before them as well as their own.

McGagh encouraged IChemE members to engage with new ways of working and embrace the technologies that can help them.

“IChemE has a vital role to play in helping its members, and its stakeholders in industry, academia, research and in the regulatory sphere to seize the moment and take full advantage of the exponential world that we are living in. This is not a time of fear. This is a time of opportunity. And there is much work to be done,” he said.

The AGM also included a positive financial update from treasurer Ken Rivers. In 2015–6, IChemE recorded its first deficit for 12 years. This was largely as a result of the low oil price and the knock-on effects associated with that, including in a drop in attendance at IChemE conferences and courses, and continuing low advertising revenue in publications. However, “decisive” action by the IChemE senior management team has resulted in a break-even position on the deficit in 2016-7, with a surplus of £431,000 when the organisation’s investments are taken into consideration. The surplus is expected to remain throughout 2017–18, with revenues on courses, membership and journals all rising and reserves increasing.

As usual, there have been some changes on Council. Past president Andrew Jamieson has stood down, succeeded by Seville. Rivers was announced as deputy president, and will succeed McGagh as president at the next AGM in May 2018. He will continue to serve as honorary treasurer. Sean Moran joins Council as an ordinary member, replacing Steve Harrow who has stepped down. From 1 June, David York will join Council as vice president (technical) to replace Jon-Paul Sherlock, who has also stepped down.

Several medals and prizes were presented just after the AGM to winners who were announced earlier this year. Qilei Song, from Imperial College London, picked up the Nicklin Medal, which recognises talented young researchers. The Geldart Medal, to recognise a major contribution to research in the area of particle technology, was presented to James Litster from the University of Sheffield. Robert Mudde, of Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands was presented with the Frank Morton Medal for excellence in chemical engineering education, while another undergraduate teaching prize, the Sustainability Teaching Award was presented to Edmund Byrne of University College Cork, Ireland, who accepted it on behalf of himself and colleague John Fitzpatrick. The inaugural Davidson Medal, named after University of Cambridge emeritus professor John Davidson which recognises an individual who has demonstrated exceptional mentorship to a young engineer, was presented by Davidson himself. There were two joint winners, Julian Chaudhuri from the University of Bradford, and the University of Cambridge’s Silvana Cardoso.

The AGM was held just prior to the opening of IChemE’s Hazards 27 safety conference, which runs from 10–12 May, also at Birmingham’s ICC.

Article by Staff Writer

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