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.
Over the next 100 years, each ground breaking discovery helped shape our world. Farmers revelled at the production of crop-boosting synthetic fertilisers. The invention of cheap and sturdy Bakelite sparked a global plastic revolution. Women were granted freedom with the synthesis of progesterone and the contraceptive pill. Later that decade, human-kind gained freedom when hydrogen fuel cells land men on the moon.
In 2015, the QEPrize honoured a trail blazing chemical engineer for a lifetime of achievement. Where medicine meets chemistry, Dr Robert Langer is king. From soothing the vocal chords of cherished actors and singers to fighting cancers and tackling diabetes, Langer has touched the lives of more than 2 billion people worldwide. MIT’s David H. Koch professor, he has also set up the world’s largest biomedical engineering lab. He has written more than 1250 articles and holds almost 1050 patents worldwide. He is the most cited engineer in history. Among all this, he still enjoys training future engineers to go on and change the world.
Speaking to the QEPrize about his students, Dr Langer said: “I think the people who come to our lab do so because they share the same mission I do, which is to create engineering principles that make the world a better place.”
Bringing together biotechnology and materials science, that is exactly what the Langer Lab is doing.
“Our lab has created new principles for treating cancer, new microspheres and nanospheres for treating different diseases, new materials,” he said. “Maybe even, someday, new ways of creating new tissues and organs.”
This month, we are celebrating engineers like Dr Langer, who have made it their mission to improve our lives. We meet the young engineers setting out on their careers who, alongside their day-to-day, find time to inspire the next generation. We also take a look at what goes into bringing pharmaceutical products to our shelves and uncover the secrets of chemical engineering in the oil and gas sector.