Peter T. Cummings, Vanderbilt University: The Future of Chemical Engineering

As part of its 110-year-anniversary celebration at the 2018 Annual Meeting in Pittsburgh, AIChE presents "Revisiting the Future of Chemical Engineering," a blog series featuring predictions from leaders in industry, academia, and national laboratories on what the profession will be like 25 years in the future. Organized by me, Phil Westmoreland (former AIChE president), and Clare McCabe (Vanderbilt University), this series reprises a similar effort completed for AIChE's Centennial Celebration ten years ago. Each week between now and the Annual Meeting, AIChE will publish two to three new posts. Where possible, we'll share thoughts from the perspective of 2008 and 2018.

We'll start the series with Peter T. Cummings. Peter is the John R. Hall Professor of Chemical Engineering and Associate Dean of the Engineering School at Vanderbilt University. He is a recipient of AIChE’s Alpha Chi Sigma (1998) and Founders (2010) awards in recognition of his research accomplishments and leadership in molecular modeling and computational nanotechnology.

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

2008: I will, for the purposes of answering this question, regard my “sector" as molecular engineering. Molecular engineering, and its sub-specialties of biomolecular engineering and nano engineering, will grow dramatically in the next 25 years due to growing opportunities in the biomedical, biochemical, and energy arenas. All of these areas depend critically on molecular insight to develop new materials (for the conversion, storage and transmission of energy, for implants, or for nuclear waste containment, just to name a few) and new molecules (as potential drugs, as replacements for existing solvents in green chemical processes, as components in new energy-storage devices, and as new catalysts).

2018: My response from 2008 appears to still be valid. Molecular engineering continues to grow as a sub-field of chemical engineering and as a research tool in multiple chemical engineering sub-disciplines. Molecular engineering also continues to make inroads into industry. Speaking with colleagues from industry, molecular modeling/engineering has emerged as an essential component of a balanced corporate research portfolio. I know of several companies, typically the larger ones, that have significantly expanded their molecular modeling staff in recent years.

What new industries/research areas do you foresee?

2008: Two sub-topics of sustainability — renewable energy and greenhouse gas abatement/reduction —will be increasingly important, and will receive an increasing share of funding from government and industry. These are problem areas in which chemical engineers can make very substantial contributions.

...I continue to believe that renewable energy and greenhouse gas abatement/reduction will continue to receive an increasing share of funding from government and industry.

2018: My prediction in 2008 certainly was on target, at least until the arrival of the Trump administration, which has systematically sought to reverse many of the advances in renewable energy and greenhouse gas abatement/reduction seen in previous administrations. However, to a large degree, Congress has not gone along with administration priorities in research, with the result that many federal government investments in renewable energy and greenhouse gas abatement/reduction continue. 

In recent years, companies have been going on the record about the deleterious effects of future climate change, as they must prepare to operate in a more challenging environment, and in some cases have supported large research programs on climate change at universities. Thus, I continue to believe that renewable energy and greenhouse gas abatement/reduction will continue to receive an increasing share of funding from government and industry.

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?

2008: I expect chemical engineering to be a bigger presence in engineering as a whole, because of its relevance to so many of the big issues of our day — energy, human health, sustainability. In 25 years’ time, even the plant-level chemical engineer will be a molecular engineer. Instrumentation increasingly provides molecular probes, and the detection and control capabilities 25 years hence will make it possible to answer the question: Where is every molecule going in my plant? Regulatory and business considerations will make answering that question an imperative in 25 years.

The era of ubiquitous computation and networking is rapidly approaching, which will revolutionize our personal and business lives in ways we cannot begin to imagine. Assuming the continuance of Moore’s law for computing in some form or other, computers will be almost a hundred-thousand times more powerful in 25 years’ time, allowing a staggering array of first-principles approaches to many chemical engineering problems. Think back 25 years, to 1983, and the state of computing then. Distributed computing was just coming into existence with Unix workstations, and personal computers were beginning to make their mark; the Apple Macintosh, the popularizer of window+mouse graphical user environments, was still a year away from introduction; the cellphone was the stuff of science fiction. Reflecting on how far we have come since then (the physical library has become almost superfluous), it is difficult to imagine where we will be in 25 years with computing technology. All we can say is that it will be transforming in ways that we cannot imagine, and that information on every conceivable subject and in every form will never be more than a few keystrokes (or its future analog) away.

One of the truly transformative results of the internet is the breaking down of barriers designed to keep information contained within an entity, such as a research group, a company, an institution or a country. As just one example, is a place where biologists and biochemists share information about laboratory techniques, information that used to be held closely within each research group to maintain its competitive edge. The success of the open software movement, dedicated to community-based development of software that is freely available, is another example of the breaking down of information barriers. In time, could this lead to the elimination of proprietary information, as yet another information barrier? Only time will tell. Information transparency leads to self-correction, ongoing validation, and widespread application, but it levels the playing field to a very uncomfortable level. The publication of independent, validated steam tables in the mid-twentieth century resulted in new levels of safety (for anything that relied on a boiler, for example); prior to this, each company had its own data and maintained it in a competitive way. Today we do not question for one moment the importance of having key thermophysical data in the public domain, yet this was once proprietary data.

Artificial intelligence will be ubiquitous, and will surely play a major role in chemical engineering research, design, operations, and safety.

2018: I expect that, as always, chemical engineering will be a discipline based on fundamental knowledge — chemistry, physics, mathematics, material and energy balances, etc. But 25 years from now?

In 2008, the iPhone had just been introduced the year before, and was not much more than a phone and media player. Who could have predicted that the iPhone (and other smartphones that followed it) could revolutionize our world, both personal and work-related, in so many ways. My iPhone 8’s computing power is enough for it to have been among the 500 fastest computers in the world in 1998; my laptop has enough computing power that it would have been the fastest computer in the world in 1997. Looking forward, the extrapolation of this is hard to comprehend: it suggests that in 25 years’ time, my iPhone will be faster than the fastest machine in the world today (Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Summit exascale machine), which is a mind-boggling concept.

My iPhone of 25 years from now could not only control any chemical plant, but it could do so based on predictive molecular models of every process going on within the plant. Computational materials discovery will be routine.

Artificial intelligence will be ubiquitous, and will surely play a major role in chemical engineering research, design, operations, and safety.

Just as today the practicing chemical engineer has to keep up with rapidly occurring advances in the field, the chemical engineer of the future will have to do the same, but most likely at an accelerating pace. At least each engineer’s personal digital assistant (i.e., robot, perhaps in the form factor of a smartphone) will be there to help!

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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