James A. Stapleton, University of Oregon: The Future of Chemical Engineering

Jim Stapleton is Courtesy Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Oregon. In 2008, he was completing his PhD research at Stanford University with Prof. James Swartz.

During AIChE’s centennial year of 2008, AIChE interviewed Dr. Stapleton to hear his vision for the profession’s future. In today’s blog post, we contrast some of Stapleton’s comments from 2008 with his perspectives today.

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

2008: Huge shifts in global demographics in the next 25 years will create market opportunities that will drive the evolution of chemical engineering. The aging of the populations of developed countries, the emergence as global consumers of the populations of developing countries, and the spread of the kind of urbanization we are witnessing in China will create vast new markets and increase the strain on our environment. Every aspect of our civilization will need to be rethought as the global population grows and natural resources (and waste sinks) become scarcer. 

Chemical engineers will be instrumental in redesigning wasteful processes and developing new technologies to increase the value we create from each unit of input, while turning waste streams into useful recycle loops. Biochemical engineers in particular will be challenged to develop renewable sources of energy, new materials, green catalysts, water treatment technologies, and sustainable fertilizers, and to quickly scale them to meet global needs. Biochemical engineers will also be instrumental in making healthcare more effective, affordable, and accessible to 10 billion people, and in finding cures to diseases from malaria to cancer. As DNA-sequencing technologies develop, the genomes of billions of unculturable and undiscovered microorganisms will offer starting points and inspiration, and our growing abilities in genetic and protein engineering will provide tools with which to solve many of these challenges. 

Twenty-five years from now, chemical engineering will be what we make it — let’s not waste its enormous potential.

2018: My answer ten years ago called on chemical engineers to meet a spectrum of challenges posed by a growing, aging, urban, empowered global population. While these demographic changes have come to pass and will continue, the response I hoped for has lagged. Our political leadership has declined to direct federal funding toward, or incentivize private investment in, difficult long-term challenges. Capital has flocked instead to less risky, rapidly built, and easily scaled software startups, many of which address problems of dubious societal benefit. Our societies have failed to account for the external costs of extractive technologies. A brief period of investment in biofuel firms was derailed by the complexity and scale of the problem and by abundant fossil fuels from fracking. I see no reason these trends will change in the next fifteen years. In the absence of a long-term plan or a societal mandate on the scale of the Manhattan Project, chemical engineers must remain ready to spring into action should our technological debt catch up with us.

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: Given enough computing power, density functional theory and molecular dynamics will one day do for chemical engineering what finite element analysis has done for mechanical engineering. The ability to model and predict the behavior of increasingly complex systems will revolutionize the way we design catalysts, materials, and processes. In the next 25 years, increased computational capabilities will transform my field of biochemical engineering. The first brewers and bakers used biocatalysts because they performed transformations for which there were no alternative catalysts while reproducing and repairing themselves using common elements at environmental temperatures and pressures. Today we use them for much the same reasons, and though we have expanded their utility by learning how to engineer cells and proteins with abilities for which nature never selected, we still do not fully understand them, nor can we match their abilities with our own designs. In the next 25 years, the ability to design highly stable enzymes to catalyze any desired reaction in silico will usher in a new era of efficient, green chemistry, with huge savings in energy and feedstock costs. As our knowledge of biocatalysis grows, we may eventually abandon biology for biomimicry, designing atomically precise nano-machines inspired and perhaps assembled by enzymes but free of their industrial limitations. 

2018: I think this answer is on track after ten years. Even with the end of Moore’s Law, increases in computing power have enabled great advances, perhaps most notably the rise of data science and machine learning. Amazing progress has been made in computational protein design, often by coupling deep computational search with high-throughput experimental screening. Great strides in bioinformatics (motivated by cheap, abundant, single-cell, and long-read DNA sequencing) have enabled complex genome assembly, transcript quantification, single-cell analysis, and sensitive GWAS studies. It will be fascinating to follow the progress in computation-guided biology in the next fifteen years: a hockey-stick curve could bring exciting breakthroughs within that time frame.

What new industries/research areas do you foresee? What do you think the chemical engineering profession will look like 25 years from now?

2008: Because the multi-faceted challenges we will face in the next 25 years will require engineers to develop equally multi-faceted solutions, well-roundedness will become a very important virtual sector of its own. The parallels engineers with diverse expertise can draw between fields make them much more than the sum of their experiences. Specialized scientists who are only able to approach a problem from a single area of expertise are often left trying to force their square pegs into round holes. Engineers must have a holistic view of real-world problems and be able to consider the scientific, economic, cultural, pragmatic, and interpersonal forces influencing a situation. Otherwise, we risk developing technologies that are exciting but do not quite fit the hole — like corn ethanol, which increases greenhouse gas emissions by encouraging deforestation. While new applications will drive the appearance of new sectors, and hot fields will come into fashion and fade away, in the long run I think that rather than further fragmenting chemical engineering, our new knowledge will highlight the common ground between many of its fundamental fields. Our discoveries will carve out new territory, but they will also erase some of the lines we have arbitrarily drawn, fill in the gaps between seemingly disparate fields, and highlight the continuity of knowledge. 

2018: I may have cheated a bit with my 2008 answer, but I think it has aged pretty well. A team consisting of a biologist and a machine learning expert, however well they communicate, will never be able to grasp the multiple dimensions of a real-world problem, understand the limitations of current solutions, identify complementary interactions between the fields, inspire talent from both fields, and convince outside funders the way a single person with mastery of both fields can. I just wish I had done a better job over the last ten years of following my own advice....

Over the next twenty-five years, the chemical engineering profession will continue to evolve rapidly. Of course, evolution is guided by selective pressures, many of which are determined by us as a society as we decide what to fund, think about, reward, and teach. So let’s all push the profession to address the biggest problems facing humanity. To be welcoming to all. To connect theory, simulation, experiment, and analysis. To promote openness, reproducibility, civility, and reason. To embrace computation and statistics. To end “tech” referring only to information technology and microelectronics by overcoming the challenges of medicine, energy, materials, infrastructure, and transportation. Twenty-five years from now, chemical engineering will be what we make it — let’s not waste its enormous potential.

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