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.
Imagine that instead of switching on a lamp when it gets dark, you could read by the light of a glowing plant on your desk.
MIT engineers have taken a critical first step toward making that vision a reality. By embedding specialized nanoparticles into the leaves of a watercress plant, they induced the plants to give off dim light for nearly four hours. They believe that, with further optimization, such plants will one day be bright enough to illuminate a workspace.
“The vision is to make a plant that will function as a desk lamp — a lamp that you don’t have to plug in. The light is ultimately powered by the energy metabolism of the plant itself,” says Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and the senior author of the study.
Recent weeks have seen festive engineering in full swing as we constructed wrapping paper masterpieces, calculated how the turkey could fit in the oven and tested out our new gadgets.
The one thing that all our decorations, toys, and even the tape holding everything together, have in common is materials engineering. An often-underrated field, materials engineering brings together countless studies of the ‘stuff’ that makes up our world.
Many of the greatest challenges our world is facing are due to the limits of the materials we have available. By improving how existing materials work, and even creating new ones altogether, we can engineer our future. Throughout January, we are meeting the engineers and innovators who make it their job to get to the bottom of these problems.
A young student who designed a trophy that will be presented to some of the world’s leading engineers has been given a behind the scenes tour of BAE Systems’ advanced manufacturing site where the trophy will be made.
Samuel Bentley, 16, of Prestatyn, Wales, visited the New Product and Process Development Centre (NPPDC) at BAE Systems in Samlesbury, Lancashire, where the company is pioneering world-leading technology to revolutionise manufacturing of military aircraft.
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.
It’s not all Willy Wonka and Oompa Loompas you know. Designing chocolates is serious engineering. Just like when you made jelly as a child (or adult!), every chocolate shape is made by a mould and every mould is created by forming plastic around a metal ‘tool’. As a result, making ‘tooling’ is at the heart of the chocolate industry.
Leigh Down, Managing Director at DPS Designs, helped bring the M&S Easter egg ‘Bendy Bob’ to life. “As you can see from our bendy friend, it can be a lot of fun and be really creative,” he said. “But behind this fun stuff is a team of engineers who need to be able to make tooling to the nearest 10 micron. That’s about five times thinner than a strand of hair!”
The team at DPS Designs have been honing their craft for over 20 years. Based in the Forest of Dean, we pride ourselves on using creativity and innovation to create fun chocolates. We challenge you to name something that we haven’t worked out how to mould in chocolate!
Engineers at Columbia University in New York have discovered a new way to create super-strong materials, taking their inspiration from nature.
The shimmering, iridescent coating on the inside of some sea shells is called ‘nacre’ or ‘mother of pearl’. A naturally occurring composite material, nacre is made up of calcium carbonate and protein. Its rigid structure makes shells resistant to cracking, protecting the soft molluscs inside.
Hexagonal plates of aragonite, a type of calcium carbonate, are arranged into continuous sheets that are stacked on top of one another. Sandwiched in between each brittle sheet is a thin layer of chitin, an elastic ‘biopolymer’ made from protein. Together, this ‘brick and mortar’ construction gives oysters extraordinary mechanical properties, such as great strength and resilience.
Inspired by insect wings that kill bacteria on contact, Indian researchers have developed a method to treat the surface of titanium orthopaedic implants at nano-scales so that they resist bacterial infection — a complication that often develops following surgery.
Orthopaedic implants like hip joints, knee joints, plates and screws can be treated to resist bacteria without the use of antibiotics, says a paper published online in Scientific Reports (23 January).