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How Chemical Engineers Are Saving the Environment

Climate change is poised to become one of the major issues of the 21st century. Already, human beings are seeing the effects of climate change, and the problem is poised to get worse — perhaps even irreversible, if humanity doesn’t act fast enough. That’s why science and engineering are stepping up to the plate and developing new ways to help combat climate change. 

What a Chemical Engineer Does

Chemical engineers have an extensive range of abilities and knowledge. They’re sometimes called “universal engineers” because the potential application of those skills is so wide-ranging. Becoming a chemical engineer involves obtaining a degree and getting trained in physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics. 

Describing what a chemical engineer does can be a bit tricky, precisely because their skill set overlaps with so many others. But in its most basic terms, chemical engineering is developing and designing various processes when it comes to the production, transportation, or transformation of materials. 

This might mean working in manufacturing, energy, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals — and, yes, environmental engineering. Environmental engineers work to clean up pollution, manage waste, and develop more sustainable processes. 

Reducing Chemical Pollutants

One of the major ways chemical engineers are helping save the environment is by reducing pollutants in the environment, particularly air pollution. Specialized air quality engineers create models for analyzing pollution, monitor emissions, and use the data they assemble to design improvements or solutions. 

Common solutions might include new infrastructure, such as regenerative incinerators, ventilation systems, and other control mechanisms. They might also get involved by making recommendations to industrial and municipal sites. 

Chemical engineers are also helping with water pollution by developing new technologies to recycle waste water, improve agricultural irrigation techniques, and reduce the energy and financial costs of water desalinisation

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Biofuels

One of the major hurdles in the battle against climate change — and perhaps the one we most need to conquer — is our reliance on fossil fuels. Finding sustainable alternatives to fossil fuel is vital to our long-term survival as a species, which is why energy research is one of the fastest-growing areas of the chemical engineering field. While many are developing new ways to harness solar and wind power, others are delving into biofuels. 

For example, carbon capture and sequestration is the process of removing carbon emissions from existing sources. Because carbon emissions are such a major problem for the environment, chemical engineers are looking into reducing those emissions and even creating new products with the captured carbon.

Engineers are also working on new fuel cell technology to optimize energy storage and aiding in an energy transition from coal power into sustainable energy sources like solar and wind. For example, natural gas has served as a sort of “bridge” resource between old non-renewable energy sources and more sustainable methods of generating energy. 

Sustainable Agricultural Practices

Food production will not only become more challenging as the world population grows, but food production is a major cause of greenhouse gasses. Finding new and sustainable ways to produce food. 

Some recent improvement chemical engineers have made in food production include:

  • The development of new fertilizers and pesticides to increase the efficiency of growing fruits and vegetables 
  • Techniques to help protect food from spoiling or becoming a vector for food-borne illness 
  • Increasing the overall safety, shelf life, and quality of processed and packaged foods. 
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One of the main reasons fertilizer development is so important to sustainable agriculture? Bigger crop yields. The bigger the yield of a crop, the more efficient the energy used to produce it, as well as being able to keep more people fed — which will continue to be a concern as the world population increases.

Sustainable Use of Food Waste

Food waste is a major contributor to climate change. It’s estimated that almost 50% of all food produced is thrown away, and isn’t put to good use — most of it ends up decaying in landfills. 

To combat this waste, chemical engineers are developing new ways to put food waste to use. For example, it was recently discovered that fermented food waste, when added to the irrigation systems of crops, can improve the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio on those crops, opening the door to more optimized production. It’s also possible these techniques could lead to certain additives being reduced or eliminated in those crops, making them cheaper and more efficient to produce. 

Some other ways in which chemical engineers are taking the fight to climate change include: 

  • Developing and discovering new raw materials to take the place of expensive, difficult, or dwindling resources. For example, the more energy-efficient light bulbs that now dominate the market use gallium nitride, which is in rare supply on earth. 
  • Making alternative energy sources like solar and wind more cost-efficient and affordable. 

Chemical engineering is not a miracle cure for the climate change problems facing humanity — but it is one of the best tools we have in the fight to save our environment. 

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