Nicholas Burtch, Sandia National Laboratories: The Future of Chemical Engineering

As part of AIChE's 110th Year Celebration, this series provides perspectives on the future of chemical engineering from dozens of leaders in industry, academia, and at national laboratories.

We continue with Nicholas Burtch, who holds a Harry S. Truman Fellowship in National Security Science and Engineering at Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque, NM. He earned his PhD in 2016 from Georgia Tech with Prof. Krista Walton.

During AIChE’s centennial year of 2008, AIChE interviewed chemical engineers to learn their perspectives on the profession’s future. In today’s blog post, Dr. Burtch presents his vision for chemical engineering post-2018.

Looking ahead 25 years, how do you expect your industry/research area to evolve?

I envision technological advances in additive manufacturing to have a significant impact on process intensification efforts in the chemical engineering industries. Additive manufacturing provides a degree of design flexibility not accessible via traditional manufacturing approaches, and with this will come unprecedented opportunities for process integration, including the rapid prototyping and manufacture of consolidated parts with greatly improved reaction and mass and heat transfer characteristics.

As further additive manufacturing advances are enabled through collaborations between the academic, industrial, and national laboratory systems, the cost, production speed, design precision, and range of materials accessible to these technologies will improve to the point where their use will become more and more economical and widespread. 

The most impactful chemical engineers will also draw from the latest advancements in non-traditional ChE areas such as additive manufacturing and machine learning to have a truly transformative impact on their field.

Secondly, as world energy demand increases significantly in the coming decades, one market-driven change that I envision will be an increased interest in more energy-efficient, materials-driven chemical separation processes that deviate from the thermally driven processes that dominate traditional industrial processes.

While thermally driven processes often rely upon energy-intensive phase changes to separate one species from another, material innovations such as nanostructured adsorbents have the potential to exploit fundamentally different separation mechanisms to achieve these same separations at lower energetic costs. I believe efforts towards scaling and designing cost-effective processes around such materials will gain significant traction into the next 25 years.

Traditional core areas of ChE expertise are being augmented by new expertise in science and engineering at molecular and nanometer scales, in biosystems, in sustainability, and in cyber-tools. Over the next 25 years, how will these changes affect your industry/research area?

Predictions were made in the 2008 Chemical Engineering Progress article regarding the role that increased computational power will play in guiding experimentation and process modelling efforts. This has already come to fruition in many regards, and I envision that in the next 25 years we will reach the point where no cutting-edge research laboratory or corporation will pursue materials research and development without some element of experimental design or insight drawn from machine learning on some pre-existing database.

I also expect the prevalence of such databases to grow, both organically through collaborative data sharing initiatives across laboratories and institutions as well as through funding agency and journal requirements promoting more transparent data management and reporting practices. 

Taking into account the ongoing evolution of the professions — including the need for new modes of education; high standards of performance and conduct; effective technical, business, and public communication; and desires for a more sustainable future —what do you think the chemical engineering profession will look like 25 years from now?

All of these factors make this a particularly exciting time to be following the chemical engineering profession. All chemical engineers will need to combine their expertise in traditional core ChE areas with the above qualities and skills to become emerging business and technical leaders in their profession.

The most impactful chemical engineers will also draw from the latest advancements in non-traditional ChE areas such as additive manufacturing and machine learning to have a truly transformative impact on their field.

AIChE's 110 Year Celebration

Celebrate AIChE's 110-year anniversary. Attend this Annual Meeting session, focusing on the future of chemical engineering through the eyes of thought leaders from industry, academia, and national laboratories.

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