Upon first impression, mine may appear to be a story of failure. At the age of 17, the idea of deciding what to do with the rest of my life was quite daunting. I didn’t know where to start. I chose the option that required the least amount of effort; do what my parents did and become a medical doctor. After applying and being rejected from medicine for two years in a row, I thought I’d better try something else!
Meanwhile, a blue and orange ‘whynotchemeng’ leaflet had found its way into my hands. I remember being impressed by the wide variety of areas chemical engineers can work in. And of course, drawn to the ‘high graduate starting salaries’… I felt like I would have a choice at the end of this degree. As I didn’t have a strong answer for ‘why not chem eng?’, I decided to try it out and see where it took me!
Engineers at the University of California San Diego (UC San Diego) have developed a stretchy fuel cell that is powered by sweat. The ‘epidermal biofuel cells’ stick to the wearer’s skin and can power devices like LEDs and Bluetooth radios.
Fuel cells work by turning the chemical energy in hydrogen-based fuels into electrical energy when the fuel is exposed to oxygen. The chemical reaction takes place at the fuel cell’s electrodes and produce electrically charged particles. These are carried from one electrode to the other, completing the circuit and producing a current.
Combining chemistry, advanced materials and electronic interfaces, the team have made an exciting breakthrough. Their new cells can generate 10 times the power per surface area than any existing wearable biofuel cells.
Astronauts on board the International Space Station are notoriously thrifty. With limited storage space, and a long trip home to pick up extra supplies, resources must be recycled many times.
A clever life support system controls the atmospheric pressure on board and provides clean water and fresh air to astronauts. Filtration systems convert waste water from showers, urine and even sweat into drinking water, while carbon dioxide scrubbers clean up the air for breathing. Some products, however, inevitably go to waste and are ejected into space.
On their much longer journeys, Mars-bound astronauts could see themselves recycling everything (and we mean everything!) to reach the red planet in one piece. Chemical engineer, Mark Blenner has been studying how the microbes that give us bread and beer can help them get there.
From the early days of all-things-kale to adopting acai bowls and bibimbap, western culture is no stranger to ‘fashionable’ foods. Thanks to a team of taste scientists in Denmark, jellyfish ‘crisps’ could become a healthier alternative to the humble potato chip.
They may not be your first choice of a healthy snack, but jellyfish are a long-standing delicacy in parts of Asia. To prevent them spoiling, fresh caught jellies are preserved in a month-long salting process. Salt is added and the water content is gradually reduced, turning their ‘jelly’ solid and rubbery. This can then be shredded and rehydrated at a late date, making a protein-rich treat.
Tiny sensors made of antibodies, protein nanospheres that can clean up toxic spills, and gels that could be injected into a wound to initiate healing are just a few of the innovations emerging from Bradley Olsen’s lab at MIT.
Olsen’s research is based on exploring the physical properties of new types of polymers, and taking advantage of those properties to design novel materials that could have many useful applications.
Around 25,000 aircraft take to the skies every year. Together, they burn 1.5 billion barrels of jet fuel and pump out more than 780 million tonnes of CO2. While this accounts for only a fraction of the world’s CO2 emissions, there is a growing need for aviators to clean up their act.
One popular way to cut the CO2 from flights is to switch to alternative fuels. Sustainable biofuels are a promising candidate to shrink the industry’s huge carbon footprint.
Dating back to the 1600s, chemical engineers have changed the world. The industry’s roots lie in the ancient practice of alchemy, before a shift towards modern-age chemistry. While they never quite turned lead into gold, early alchemists did lead the way in manufacturing handy chemicals like sulphuric and hydrochloric acid.
Two hundred years later, George E Davis made a name for the industry with a revolutionary book. In “A Handbook of Chemical Engineering”, he noted the defining characteristics of ‘the chemical engineer’, and made the case for their distinction from chemists.