How advanced technologies can meet process engineering challenges ahead

Challenges facing the process engineering sector and technologies can help, explained Dr. David Brown, chief executive of the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) at the 2012 Yokogawa User Conference. The European Commission expects advanced engineering to help, via the Horizon 2020 Initiative.


The European Commission is looking for engineering answers to world challenges relating to energy, sustainability, and safety. Control and process engineering technologies seem likely to help. Quoting professor Sir John Beddington, chief scientific advisor to the U.K. government, Dr. David Brown began his presentation at the 2012 Yokogawa User Conference by stating that industry will be facing a perfect storm of technical challenges based around the need for water, food, and energy of the ever-growing global population.

At the European level, the European Commission recently launched the Horizon 2020 Initiative, an EU framework program for research and innovation, which will run from 2014 to 2020 to tackle these issues. This program aims to provide a stronger link between the research base and commercially profitable innovation, putting the focus on activities closer to the market in a bid to deliver commercial benefits that are economically sustainable. Approximately 60% of the program budget will target the sustainability agenda and around one-third of the budget will try to mitigate the extent of climate change and adapt to its effects.

The European Commission has identified a number of enabling technologies considered fundamental to driving the European investment agenda in the future. These include micro- and nano-electronics and photonics; nanotechnologies; advanced materials; biotechnology; and advanced manufacturing and processing. All are areas that require expertise in process control and process management or automation.

The European Commission has also identified some issues facing society that need to be taken into account as we move forward with new technologies. Many of these societal issues also rely on the skills of chemical and process engineers to deliver solutions.

Energy challenge

The energy challenge tops the list. There is a steadily growing demand that needs to be satisfied by bringing energy resources from increasingly demanding places. This will result in increasing engineering intensity—if we are obtaining energy from more difficult places, under tighter environmental controls and with tighter regulatory and safety scrutiny, then a much greater engineering input will be required.

At the same time, we all need to use energy more efficiently. Energy costs and pricing volatility create increasing problems for energy-intensive industries, which requires us to raise the efficiency of existing processes by looking more closely at the system.

It will also be necessary to reconfigure entire infrastructures—the generation, supply, and distribution infrastructure—if we are going to be generating energy from increasingly weird and wonderful places, for example, the roofs of our houses, offshore wind, and waves. We need to be able to access these places to be able to send power in and out. We need to be able to assemble power from a diverse and distributed range of inaccessible environments to bring the power to where it is needed. This will require a very different supply and distribution infrastructure.


Safety will also be a key driver. We are all coming under tighter scrutiny. Companies need to have a good reputation for safe and responsible well-managed performance, which depends on better process understanding, process control, and proper upgrade procedures that make sense and are well understood. That requires a culture of safety from the very start of an engineer’s education.


Sustainability used to be something that only visionaries worked towards. This is not the case today. Now it is about keeping costs under control and maintaining an ability to operate against the scrutiny of the media, the public, and market regulators. It is about operating in an environment where climate change is real and important and about responding to pressure to show real progress towards more sustainable processes.

We also need to work towards abolishing waste. The natural world does not do waste! Removing it from our processes would be a good way to save money. Currently we pay for the raw materials, we pay to process them, and then we pay to have the waste removed. Industry needs to become smarter, safer, more sustainable, and more profitable all at the same time! This demands that everything we do has to be done better, smarter, and more effectively, and we need to do this against a background of rising costs and economic uncertainty. The skills shortage looks set to make these challenges even more difficult.

It is vital that we better understand our processes, and this is one of the key challenges for the process and chemical engineering community today. We need to understand the whole value chain, from the fundamentals upwards. The time has gone when process engineers can leave the science to the scientists and the research to the researchers. Today it is necessary to understand the fundamentals too if we are to connect them with first-rate scaled-up manufacturing.

The latest IChemE technology strategy roadmap is expected to examine how four key challenges to society—energy, food, health and wellbeing, and water—can be addressed by industry. 

- This Jan. 22 article from Control Engineering Europe was edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, for Control Engineering and Plant Engineering,

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More Horizon 2020 details.

Also read:

Control Engineering Europe: Looking at the challenges ahead

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