Advancing Sustainability through Global Collaboration in India

AIChE is expanding and fostering collaboration around the globe. With the establishment of the International Committee in 2007, AIChE has cultivated international relations with other chemical engineering organizations, such as the UK's Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), the Korean Institute of Chemical Enigneers (KIChE), and the Indian Institute of Chemical Engineers (IIChE). At the 2012 Annual Meeting in Pittsburgh, PA, the U.S.-India Symposium on Energy, Environment, and Sustainability featured speakers from both AIChE and the Indian chemical engineering world.

Engineering in India: challenges and opportunities

Chemical engineering in India originated at Calcutta University in 1921. Since its birth, chemical engineering has been applied to many of India's basic issues to improve the quality of life of its people. For example, in 1947, the average lifespan of an Indian male was 38 and an Indian female was 43. Today, these numbers are much higher thanks to advances in food production and medicine -- many of which were created and developed by chemical engineers. In a country of 1.24 billion people, the majority of the resources are committed to providing energy and food for its population and alleviating poverty.

Until very recently, sustainability has been an afterthought due to these more pressing challenges. However, resource depletion and the exponentially growing population have pushed sustainability to the forefront of India's challenges. Global collaboration and a new generation of chemical engineers equipped with a wide breadth of knowledge will be required to solve India's sustainability problems.

Collaborative process engineering

Dr. George Stephanopoulos from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology believes that a more significant investment in research and development is needed to revolutionize sustainability. According to Stephanopoulos, there is a large divide between large-scale processes and small-scale chemical engineering operations in India. India still needs to expand its large scale, industrial basis. But its small-scale pharmaceutical and biotech industries have already demonstrated global reach. In other words, the commodity chemicals industry has been developing at a slow pace, but the pharmaceutical industry has been growing quickly. Why the discrepancy? There is more research and development in pharmaceuticals, claims Stephanopoulos. Following this logic, solving many of India's sustainability issues is a matter of investing in R&D -- for the chemicals industry, development is necessary in enhanced simulation environments.

The decisions made at the beginning of a project's lifecycle are key. Massive amounts of time are devoted to safety analyses, process modeling, and economic performance analyses. There are often several groups of people performing these tasks. Stephanopoulos postulates that an integrated simulation-based environment could increase productivity at this stage and improve sustainability based on green chemistry principles. Different project groups would use this system as a blackboard for collaboration. More importantly, a platform like this could foster global collaboration, further improving sustainability. The software to build such a system is available today. India has a lot to offer in this field, as many of its chemical engineers also have education in information technology.

A need for a high level of sustainability is a pressing matter in India, but it is not an obstacle easily overcome. More research and development is necessary in the large scale manufacturing of commodity chemicals to make these processes more sustainable.

Will India or China show itself as the more sustainable in the next decade?


Robert S's picture

From my limited experience traveling through these countries is that China is in a better position to lead in the sustainability arena. While both countries have a large population of poor people, I think there is a higher level of services provided to the average Chinese person. They are also structured differently - in China the charge can be driven by a few from the top where in India the change has to be driven from grassroots up. Both are large ships that are difficult to turn quickly, but China has a more centralized control system that would provide for more efficient steering. If it is a value that the leadership latches onto, change will come quickly. The US is more similar to India, and I think we have seen how difficult producing lasting change can be. The average American is making those decisions from a vastly difference reference point, but even an economically challenging period has made the change more difficult.