Modern engineering has moved on from the stage where hardware was always used for manufacturing, and computer software was necessary for programming. Today, we are close to being able to use purely biological approaches to produce drugs, food, clothing and even industrial goods. This discipline is called biological engineering, and progress has accelerated in the last ten years thanks to massive drops in the price of both DNA production and characterisation. However, the complexity of biology and the long time it takes to prototype proteins is still a major roadblock to progress.
Khainza Energy produces clean, affordable, long lasting cooking gas and packages it in cylinders for sale to low income households in Uganda. The gas is produced entirely from organic waste through biochemical processes. Our gas burns with no smoke, no smell and yet costs less than charcoal!
The idea was inspired by a woman living in Eastern Uganda. She gave birth to her first child when she was barely 16 years old. She now has 6 children, whom she has been providing for almost single handedly. Every morning at 4am, the children awake to the loud sound of an axe splitting firewood. They can hear their mother wheezing and coughing in the small kitchen as she prepares their breakfast. Three years ago, this brave woman was diagnosed with an acute respiratory infection. She had spent a large part of her life effectively “smoking”.
As chemical engineers and chemists, we often don’t get to see what we create – molecules are too small to see and chemical processes often happen in closed systems. As such, when we do get to see the fruits of our labor, the result can be incredibly exciting and motivating.
This was the case in the founding of my company, Sironix Renewables. During my PhD at the University of Minnesota, I worked with a team of scientists to develop new, eco-friendly replacements to existing chemicals and fuels. The process involved making renewably-sourced products, like fuels, detergents, and plastics. Finding a suitable replacement to an existing product is great, but for us the ‘holy grail’ was finding something that worked better than what existed.
One of these ‘holy grail’ moments struck us when we were looking at a set of vials – all but one was filled with a cloudy, white liquid. We were looking at the hard water stability of new detergent molecules for things like spray cleaners and laundry detergents, and the cloudy, white liquid meant it didn’t work well. The one clear vial, however, was our new detergent molecule and it performed flawlessly. This was one of the few moments where we got to see the result of our work.
Two years ago, on a rainy Monday in October, Queen Elizabeth II handed the 2015 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering to Dr Robert Langer. Only the second person to receive the award, the chemical engineer was honoured for his life’s work in developing ways to control the release of large-molecule drugs over time.
Used by 300 pharmaceutical, chemical and biotechnology companies, and featuring in some 1000 patents, Bob’s work has touched the lives of 2 billion people worldwide. His technology has helped develop treatments for cancer, diabetes and mental illnesses. He has even worked with famed voice surgeon, Steven Zeitels, to treat vocal injuries like those suffered by Julie Andrews and Adele.
Two years after receiving the award, Bob remains delightfully humbled by his success. “It was such a tremendous honour,” he said. “Firstly, it was a thrill to meet the Queen, who was so nice, and to meet five other members of the Royal Family. It’s such a wonderful prize and it’s hard for me to believe I could receive such an honour.”
3rd year Standard Grade Chemistry, Unit 3: “Hydrocarbons”, end of unit test… I got 100%! The energy industry had caught my heart, and from that point, I was hooked.
I applied to study Chemical Engineering at Imperial College in 2005. As a young gay teenager, the lure of London and starting a new life in a vibrant, metropolitan city was too enticing to turn down. Results day came, grades were achieved, and off I went at the tender age of 17.
Charlie is an engineering apprentice working at GSK Maidenhead. He joined the team in August 2014 and has worked in departments across the factory. We met up with him to find about a bit more about the challenges of life as an engineer and what he wants to see the profession doing in the future!
Chemical engineers in California have found a way to produce useful chemicals in bacteria, using energy from the sun.
With fossil fuels an ever-dwindling resource, engineers must find new ways to meet our energy and chemical production needs. Inspired by plants, a team of researchers at UC Berkeley has found a way of tricking bacteria into photosynthesising. Instead of making food from CO2, water and sunshine, these bacteria are duped into making simple, organic chemicals instead.