IChemE releases list of best inventions

Thursday, 06 February, 2014

A survey conducted by the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) has revealed what chemical engineers consider to be the most important chemically engineered inventions and solutions of the modern era.

From a short list of over 40 inventions, MediaEnvoys from IChemE’s membership chose the 10 inventions considered to have made the biggest impact on society over the past century:

  1. Drinking or potable water
  2. Petrol or gasoline (and other fuels including diesel)
  3. Antibiotics
  4. Electricity generation (from fossil fuels)
  5. Vaccines
  6. Plastics
  7. Fertiliser
  8. Sanitation
  9. Electricity generation (from non-fossil fuels)
  10. Dosed medications (such as tablets, pills and capsules)

Water quality is regulated in most developed countries, with methods including physical processes such as filtration, sedimentation and distillation; biological processes such as slow sand filters or biologically active carbon; chemical processes such as flocculation and chlorination; and the use of electromagnetic radiation such as ultraviolet light.

“The chemical engineering and scale of activity needed to achieve the provision of safe, clean water is huge,” said IChemE MediaEnvoy Deborah John, “and highlighted by the challenge faced by many developing countries that do not yet have the infrastructure or skills to provide reliable and safe drinking water to its population.”

Plastics are mostly made from organic raw materials such as cellulose, coal, natural gas and crude oil. Due to their relatively low cost, ease of manufacture, versatility and imperviousness to water, they are used in an enormous and expanding range of products.

IChemE MediaEnvoy Thaddeus Anim-Somuah said even the environment has benefited from some degree from plastics “by helping to reduce the amount of materials needed for packaging and the energy required to transport goods”. He added that plastics “will continue to evolve and change, especially in relation to sustainability”.

Fertiliser is added to soil to supply one or more nutrients essential to the growth of plants and thus has the effect of increasing crop yields. Fertiliser generated from ammonia, converted from atmospheric nitrogen, is estimated to be responsible for sustaining one-third of the Earth’s population; half of the protein within human beings is made of nitrogen that was originally produced by the process.

“Quite simply, current food demand and supply could not be met without the use of fertiliser and chemical engineers,” said IChemE MediaEnvoy Hasan Baqar.

Sanitation is the safe disposal of waste such as human faeces to protect public health. Chemical engineers are central to the treatment of waste and are also involved in the recycling, composting and conversion of waste to biofuels.

“Chemical engineers are continuing to develop purification processes using techniques like adsorption, membrane separation and advanced oxidation with ultraviolet light,” said Andy Furlong, IChemE’s director of policy and communication. “They are also working to reduce the environmental impact of sewage sludge disposal, including making good use of this unpleasant stuff as a raw material for biodiesel.”

Electricity generation from fossil fuels - such as coal, gas and oil - has emerged as the dominant source of global energy over the past century since the first public power station was built in 1882 and is likely to be the main source of energy for the foreseeable future, with over 50,000 coal-fired power stations in operation worldwide.

But electricity generation from nuclear, wind, solar, biomass, biofuels and hydropower is viewed by many as a replacement for fossil fuels in the decades to come. It’s an area of significant technological change and investment; in 2014 the world’s largest gasification plant is scheduled to open in the UK, capable of powering 50,000 homes from 350,000 tonnes of biomass each year.

“From the beginning of non-fossil fuel electricity generation, chemical engineers have been right at the centre of the revolution - designing the cooling systems for nuclear reactors, driving forward production methods for photovoltaic cells and analysing flow patterns around wind turbine blades are just three examples,” said IChemE MediaEnvoy Andrew Baines.

“Electricity is essential to the way we live … [but] it is no secret that fossil fuels will one day be exhausted, and we will have to learn to generate electricity without them.”

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