Ryan C. Snyder, Bucknell University: The Future of Chemical Engineering

Ryan Snyder is associate professor of chemical engineering at Bucknell University. In 2008, he was conducting PhD research at the University of California, Santa Barbara, with Prof. Michael F. Doherty.

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

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

2008: The cost of discovering each new active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) has steadily risen over the past 10–20 years. While biotechnology and genomics have potential to change this tide, it is likely that discovering new APIs will continue to become more and more costly. Additionally, the pharmaceutical industry faces potential challenges in its ability to maintain pricing power over the coming years due to either the challenge of passing on these increased costs to the consumer or potential reforms to the U.S. healthcare system. Nonetheless, due to competition from generics, pharmaceutical companies must continue to find new drugs in order to stay economically viable. 

Over the next 25 years, I expect that chemical engineers will have a dramatic impact on the pharmaceutical industry through improved process development methodologies. These methods will help to drive down costs and mitigate risk through more rapid development and scale-up. 

2018: It is certainly true that APIs have continued to become more costly. Thus far, biotechnology and genomics have led to amazing advances in personalized medicine; however, in terms of cost per dose, they are often much more costly. Nonetheless, the overall cost of treatment can be lower since often many fewer doses are needed. Also there have been multiple, notable changes to the U.S. healthcare insurance system in the past 10 years with the Affordable Care Act, along with the more recent changes in its implementation. Chemical engineers have provided for better use of continuous manufacturing methods in pharmaceuticals, and they should continue to impact the development of biopharmaceuticals and personalized medicine. While this expertise likely will provide some assistance in cost savings, the overall effect on total cost likely will be dictated by other factors leading to the potential for continually increasing cost in the next 15 years.

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: Twenty to thirty years ago (or so I have heard), scale-up of a new traditional liquid-phase chemical process required large amounts of experimental data, extensive calculations, and many incremental increases in production scale before reaching the full plant level. However, today the path to full-scale production can often be performed rapidly while coupled with a minimal set of experiments. Often process simulation can even be performed simultaneously with the new research projects to immediately bear out their economic potential. This rapid process intensification was due in large part to chemical engineering contributions through the development of predictive thermodynamic models (e.g., UNIFAC), process synthesis methods, and detailed process simulations that can be implemented on time scales relevant for process development. 

In much the same way, in order to reach full-scale production of a new API today, extensive experiments and calculations are required through many stages of scale-up. While it may seem somewhat far-fetched, history and current research suggests that the development of new solid-state chemicals such as APIs twenty to thirty years from now may follow a similar course. One may only require a minimal set of experiments, coupled with yet-to-be-developed methods for the prediction of key process parameters (crystal polymorph, crystal shape, API solubility, etc.) coupled to a rapid process-simulation suite.

2018: These opportunities continue to develop. While solubility and polymorph prediction, for example, have both evolved in the past 10 years, they have yet to be successful enough to fully drive development. As they evolve in the coming years, there are also significant opportunities in current development — not only to use predictive models but also to combine predictive methods with the growing opportunities to use “big data” and machine learning to fully develop our understanding of these and other complex phenomena.  

What new industries/research areas do you foresee?

2008: Looking to the future, chemical engineers will have a continued influence in areas where we have traditionally contributed greatly, such as in energy and healthcare. Additionally, I expect that chemical engineers will have an increasing role in managing and maintaining both our food and water infrastructure. Chemical engineers have had some influence in these areas, and their growing importance (along with energy) will drive the need for more work in these areas. This could range from the development of methods to avoid residual pharmaceuticals from reaching the water supply, to the development of new nutrition replacements (meal in a pill). Chemical engineers will likely also play a role in new markets that will develop further in the decades to come. For instance, challenges in space will force us to reexamine our existing expertise with new constraints (e.g., travel costs, transportation of equipment) which have not been considered in the same way before (although one can likely assume an ideal gas at those pressures). Food, water, and energy needs over longer distances, times, and on non-earthly bodies will be problems not just for astrophysicists.

2018: In the past 10 years, chemical engineers have made an increasingly resurgent contribution to the energy sector through the use of shale gas to improve the U.S. energy infrastructure. While we have been largely fortunate in the past 10 years (and I hope similarly so in the next 25 years) such that water or food shortages have not dictated a dramatic change in activity in these areas, they are nonetheless areas where chemical engineers can step in when (and ideally before) it is needed. 

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?

2018: Chemical engineering as a profession has often tackled complex technical problems at the intersection of multiple disciplines. Going forward, I hope that the chemical engineering profession will not only continue to tackle these problems, but also further interface with social, economic and environmental perspectives. In the pharmaceutical industry, for example, it would be valuable for chemical engineers and other scientists and engineers to make contributions to challenging social issues such as (1) the way in which pharmaceutical prices may be set, (2) the extent to which regulations should dictate the marketing and advertising of pharmaceuticals, and (3) the development of best practices in designing and implementing clinical trials. Thus, it is incumbent upon educators to provide not only technical content, but to interface technical content with broad perspectives in a student’s university experience.

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