David Mackanic, PhD student, Stanford University

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 David Mackanic, a PhD student at Stanford University, supervised by Prof. Zhenan Bao under an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship and the Stanford Graduate Fellowship. His research focuses on the development of novel polymeric systems to improve the safety, longevity, and energy density of lithium-ion batteries.

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, Mackanic presents his visions for chemical engineering post-2018.

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

The emerging market for wearable electronics will create a robust new market for multi-functional polymer materials. Devices such as the Apple Watch, Fitbit, and other health-based wearable sensors are projected to receive widespread adoption over the next decade.

These devices are required to be flexible, mechanically robust, and in some cases stretchable and healable. In recent years, design and synthesis of multi-functional polymers has progressed significantly.

These multi-functional polymers are ideal to meet the requirements of wearable electronics. For example, the development of ultra-tough elastomers that have tunable electronic, optical, and thermal properties will enable fully functional flexible and stretchable sensors, transistors, and energy storage devices. Such devices will be made of either pure polymers, blends of polymers, or nanocomposite polymers. Adoption of soft electronics and wearables will also be facilitated by the discovery of new low-cost fabrication methods such as 3D printing and additive manufacturing. These fabrication methods will allow for advanced polymer materials to be incorporated into wearable devices at a feasible price point.

Beyond the growing market for wearables, the multi-functional polymers currently being developed will also provide a technological breakthrough for new types of biomaterials. Polymers can be tuned to create bio-compatible devices for surgical implantation. Overall, the emerging market for wearable electronics will facilitate the development and production of advanced polymer materials and new fabrication techniques to provide these devices to consumers.

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? 

Large-scale plant processes will always be important in the chemical engineering profession to develop cost-effective commodity chemicals. In the next 25 years, advancements in metabolic engineering of biosystems will radically change the scale at which production of specialty chemicals is profitable. For example, bacteria or yeast can be genetically engineered to produce a specialty chemical, which is then collected via standard fermentation and harvesting. Advanced bio fermentation processes will create access to many complex compounds at a relatively inexpensive price.

This will have three main effects on research/industry. The first is that exotic compounds, such as intricate monomers, may become affordable for consumer use. The second is that chemical engineers will need to become familiar with unit economics at a smaller scale. The third is that a fundamental understanding of biosystems will be necessary to work at the cutting edge of chemical manufacturing.

Computation and cyber tools will have a dramatic impact on the chemical development process in the next 25 years. Enhanced computation power and improved machine-learning/AI algorithms will enable better computational determination of structure-function relationships and will enable rapid screening of new chemicals. Furthermore, computation will be critically important to speed up the process of using metabolic engineering to produce a target molecule. As always, modeling at the system level is important to ensure profitable and efficient production of the final chemical. Overall, the future of cyber tools will enable multi-scale modeling of the whole production process of a chemical from molecular design to large-scale manufacturing.

Without doubt, technological advances over the next 25 years will increase the complexity of the chemical engineering profession. In addition to traditional unit operations, chemical engineers will need to consider complex biological processes, nanoscale phenomena, and economics across all scales of production.

What new industries/research areas do you foresee? 

I foresee three emerging areas.

The first is the industry of additive manufacturing and printing of functional materials. Additive manufacturing has grown rapidly in the past decade, and will continue to do so in coming years. The widespread adoption of additive manufacturing will occur at the interface of polymer engineering, fluid mechanics, and transport phenomena. It is expected that additive manufacturing will allow for the development of products that are different in function than what chemical engineers traditionally design.

The development of improved polymer materials and advances in additive manufacturing will enable a new industry based on personalized devices. Low cost manufacturing of custom parts from additive manufacturing will allow for chemical engineers to create products for specific individuals, whether it is a prosthetic limb, a tailored drug-delivery matrix, or a custom-sized battery or circuit for a medical implant. Rapid fabrication of customizable parts through additive manufacturing combined with an ever-developing suite of 3D-printable materials will allow for chemical engineers to make truly tailored solutions for a variety of technical challenges.

The final industry and research area that will grow rapidly in the coming decades is advanced recycling and waste processing. While huge progress has been made in the field of renewable energy in the last 10 years, there is still need to figure out how to re-process used materials and clean up waste from our environment. To remedy the problems of waste and pollution, extensive research and industrial development will emerge in the near future.

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?

Without doubt, technological advances over the next 25 years will increase the complexity of the chemical engineering profession. In addition to traditional unit operations, chemical engineers will need to consider complex biological processes, nanoscale phenomena, and economics across all scales of production.

Fortunately, the core principles of chemical engineering enable us to effectively solve problems in any technical situation. Certainly, chemical engineers will make significant developments in all of these emerging fields of technology. One aspect of the profession that may change is the emergence of a sharper divide between bio-chemical engineers, nano-chemical engineers, and traditional chemical engineers. Such a difference might manifest itself through specialized undergraduate concentrations or during graduate programs after the traditional rigorous chemical engineering curriculum.

In terms of professional conduct and social responsibility, chemical engineers will need to pay special attention to environmental conservation and restoration in the next 25 years. The nano-scale and computational innovations that are beginning to penetrate the profession will undoubtedly allow chemical engineers to make great progress in the fields of renewable energy storage and conversion.

However, chemical engineers inventing new processes and industries will need to consider the environmental impacts of their activities. Even with advanced renewable technologies, future energy use and emissions from chemical production will need to be minimized to help preserve our delicate ecosystem. Furthermore, chemical engineers will need to consider implementing environmental remediation strategies in order to offset the environmental impact of current practices.

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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