Rafiqul Gani, PSE for SPEED: The Future of Chemical Engineering

During AIChE’s centennial year of 2008, AIChE interviewed Dr. Gani about his vision for the future of chemical engineering. In today’s blog post, we contrast Gani’s comments from 2008 with his perspectives today.

Rafiqul Gani is CEO of the company PSE for SPEED. He retired in 2017 as professor of systems design in the Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering at the Technical University of Denmark. He also served as editor-in-chief of Computers & Chemical Engineering, and as president (2014–17) of the European Federation of Chemical Engineering.

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

2008: Market constraints will drive the industry to produce improved products (with desired end-use properties) manufactured through more sustainable processes. That is, technology for “process-driven” industries (such as paper, petrochemicals, commodity chemicals, etc.) will become more compact, safer, environmentally friendly, and sustainable. Technology for “process-enabled” industries (such as specialty chemicals, active materials, bio-materials, etc.) will be dominated by the control of the end-use properties of the product as well as by synchronized (and rapid) development of the product-process that are safe and environmentally acceptable. With respect to chemicals-based products, there will be growing marketplace demands for sophisticated, controlled and structured products combining several functions and properties.

Therefore, issues such as waste (percentage of raw material converted to valuable product), water-energy usage, environment, multi-scale and multi-dimension factors, etc., will play important roles in developing processing technologies. Industries will have to be more responsible on social, economic, and environmental issues in addition to the traditional engineering issues. Innovative solutions and expanded chemical supply chain (enterprise-wide optimization) will become important in making decisions. Industry will need to increase productivity and selectivity through intelligent operations and multi-scale control of processes; design/implement novel equipment based on scientific principles and new modes of production (such as process intensification); manufacture products with desired end-use properties (that is, develop a multidisciplinary product-oriented engineering with special emphasis on solids technology and complex fluid processing); implement multi-scale and multidisciplinary modeling and simulation to real-life situations (that is, from the molecule scale to the overall complex production scale).

Bio-based fuels will not replace fossil fuels, but use of other forms of energy (wind, solar, hydro, etc.) will increase significantly. 


In order to become more sustainable, technologies for “process-driven” industries as well as “process-enabled” industries will become versatile and intelligent. That is, from the same resources, they would be able to switch from one processing route to another so that a class of products depending on the need and demand can be manufactured. New and significantly improved technologies will be developed to meet the grand challenges of energy, water, food, and environment. Developments in e-communication, e-commerce, medical treatment, etc., will see phasing out of products in current use with a new class of multifunctional products. For example, paper, hard-disk storage, etc., will see their use decreased significantly.

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?

2008: To convert molecules into useful products at the process scale, it will be necessary to understand and describe the relationships between events at nano- and/or micro-scales through organization of process engineering into appropriate (different) scales and levels. This will lead to development of new concepts and methods based on breakthroughs in molecular modeling, scientific instrumentation, and powerful computational tools (including image processing), in collaboration with chemists, biologists, physicists, instrumentation specialists and many more. Although industrial needs will drive developments, balance between value preservation versus value creation of products from chemical engineering; balance between expanding the scope versus maintaining the core of chemical engineering; and, balance between engineering and science in fundamental contribution of chemical engineering will need to be achieved. Methods and tools to manage complexity, risk, uncertainty, and resources will need to be developed, applied and taught.

Society’s demand for better and improved products will lead to the synthesis/extraction of a greater number of molecules by chemists and biochemists, and to handle them will require greater interactions between processing technologies and chemistry, information science and communication science. Advances in micro- and nano-fabrication processing technologies, together with new market objectives, sales, competitiveness and end-use property defined chemicals-based products, will lead to the incorporation of new specialties and active material chemistry within chemical engineering. The system boundary of problems will need to enlarge from the current process boundary (including plant construction and decommissioning) to inclusion of extraction and manufacture of raw materials; extraction of fuels and energy generation; product use, reuse and recycling; and emissions and waste management.

2018: In addition to what has been written above, I would like to add the following: methods and tools for design and development of multi-functional materials (catalysts, polymers, nano-particles, etc.) will be established. Based on these, new tailor-made products (functional products and devices) will be routinely developed for different industrial sectors (chemicals, pharma, food). 3D-printer-based products in food and medicine will be available.

What new industries/research areas do you foresee?

2008: Molecular engineering; life sciences and engineering; expanded scope of biochemical engineering (biorefineries, commodity chemicals produced through the bio-route; etc.); pharmaceutical engineering; product-process systems engineering (to include commodity chemicals, molecules with desired end-use properties, micro-structures with desired structural and end-use properties); process intensification with micro-engineering and micro-technology; process engineering for microelectronics; green chemistry and engineering.

Artificial Intelligence and machine-learning-based modelling and data analysis will become popular topics in the advanced chemical engineering curriculum.

2018: Geographical-location-dependent, totally integrated manufacturing systems combining power generation, product (commodity chemicals, specialty chemicals, polymers, etc.) manufacturing, material reuse, utilities self-sufficiency, and strict regulation of environmental impacts will be developed and routinely used.

New and significantly more efficient processing equipment will be available. New, more versatile devices (nano, micro, meso and macro) in different sectors will be available (health and personal care, farming and plant protection). New intensified process operations replacing distillation-absorption columns will become more prominent.

Bio-based fuels will not replace fossil fuels, but use of other forms of energy (wind, solar, hydro, etc.) will increase significantly. Bio-based chemicals manufacturing, together with CO2 capture and utilization, will become more established.

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?

From 2018, on, topics such as reaction, separation, thermodynamics, and control-operation as defining factors in chemical engineering will continue to remain as the core topics. However, there will be more “science” in theoretical aspects and more engineering in application aspects. Ability to define and solve problems involving issues such as multiscale-dimension, large-data, complex systems, sustainability (economics, environment, social) and supply-chain will be core competencies of chemical engineers. Design-development of chemicals-based products, as well as their sustainable manufacturing, will be established as curriculum of chemical engineering. Artificial Intelligence and machine-learning-based modelling and data analysis will become popular topics in the advanced chemical engineering curriculum.

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.

Learn more