New view of chemical engineering to help serve society

Article by Amanda Jasi

RESEARCHERS have presented a new view of chemical and biochemical (C&B) engineering, which sees the discipline as three interconnected layers of activity. They say the view helps to show how well equipped the field is to tackle current and future challenges, to serve society.

Currently, society is facing formidable challenges, including climate change, global population growth, and resource limitation. These require innovative solutions which chemical and biochemical engineers could help to provide.

The multi-layered view, published in Chemical Engineering Research and Design, involves an inner layer which deals with fundamental principles –  such as thermodynamics, reaction kinetics, transport phenomena – and their application; a middle layer that deals with combining science and technology to develop sustainable technologies; and, an outer layer which deals with knowledge integration and collaboration with other disciplines to help achieve a more sustainable society.

Through this view, the authors highlight activities in the practice, research, and education of C&B engineering.


The authors write that industry translates the discipline of C&B engineering to value, and offers interesting and challenging careers. In the outer layer, value creation is observed through identifying grand challenges to address to achieve sustainable industrial development and improve circularity. Drawing on skills from the inner layers it can help to ensure sustainable development.

According to the paper, combining science and engineering to help develop commercially successful technology, and maintaining existing operations, are essentially the definition of industry’s remit. It adds that all industrial practices, including manufacturing, engineering, equipment, software, and consulting, should aim to achieve sustainable development and/or circularity.


Research activities occur at each of the different layers highlighted by the authors. Outer-layer research aims to understand the needs of key stakeholders and translate them into development targets. These targets can then be realised by developments in the innermost and middle layers.

Certain concepts would need to be incorporated at the inner layers to enable sustainable survival on earth with an acceptable standard of living, for example, by improving living standards with minimal environmental and health. To name a few, sustainability, circular economy, and resource recovery, would need to be integrated into areas such as product development, process design, and retrofit activities.


The researchers say that C&B engineering students need to understand the basic concepts of the discipline, as well as the scope and significance of both the middle and outer layers. In addition, students should gain non-technical skills to help them in areas such as project management, as well as the ability to work in multicultural and diverse environments.

Furthermore, the paper notes the importance of adaption in a rapidly-changing society and that C&B engineers should be able to handle different situations and respond to emergencies, if needed. It says courses in process and plant design, combined with or without product design, are well suited to meet these types of learning objectives.

A key issue concerns including topics within the curriculum to equip students with the ability to adapt to innovative technologies from outside the scope of C&B engineering without sacrificing the core curriculum.  

Addressing challenges

“C&B interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary engineers are in a pivotal position to help society shape a sustainable future with zero-waste and minimum energy consumption objectives of circular economy,” the authors write.

They discuss technologies that C&B engineers are developing to help address future needs. For example, developments in electrified methane reforming for greener industrial hydrogen production appear promising. The recently-announced Hydrogen Taskforce says the gas has a major role to play in helping to meet the climate targets, and called on the UK Government to commit to funding of £1bn (US$1.22bn) to hydrogen production, storage and distribution projects.

They note that an important immediate activity is to define the grand challenges that society now faces and thereby identify the main opportunities for C&B engineering.

IChemE’s principal technical committee, the Learned Society Committee, recently identified responsible production, major hazard identification and management, and digitalisation as its first priority topics, as part of IChemE’s mission to address the grand challenges. Additionally, IChemE is working to publish a position on climate change, ahead of the COP26 climate conference.

Lead author and IChemE Fellow Rafiqul Gani clarified that the paper is “like a short review-perspective paper on the scope and significance of C&B engineering.”

He added: “[W]e hope the paper will attract more students and researchers to C&B engineering; motivate those who are already involved with C&B engineering; explain better about C&B engineering to those who do not know about it; influence the decision makers; and, explain to others the contributions of C&B engineering to our society and many more.”

Chemical Engineering Research and Design:

This story was updated on 17 March to add commentary made by Rafiqul Gani FIChemE.

Article by Amanda Jasi

Staff reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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