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 Velencia Witherspoon, an NRC-NIST Postdoctoral Fellow in the Functional Polymers group of the Material Science and Engineering Division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. She earned her PhD in 2017 from the University of California, Berkeley, under the supervision of Prof. Jeffrey A. Reimer.
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, Dr. Witherspoon presents her visions for chemical engineering post-2018.
I hope to see an emergence of technologies, strategies, and manufacturing processes that allow for an intimate control of molecular-scale interactions derived from a new fundamental thermodynamic understanding at multiple scales of operation (fabrication, processing, molecular functionality, etc.)
Looking 25 years into the future, how do you expect your industry/research area to evolve?
The evolution of research has involved the slow but essential integration of computational techniques serving to influence the direction and strategy for developing technologies and to lead the understanding of molecular interactions that drive performance. Data-driven design at every level of technological advancement has become an indispensable way of practicing the scientific method. However, we must acknowledge that predictive computational methods are only as accurate as the level of detail presented in their data training sets.
We have now reached a point where computer modeling often offers more details than can be validated experimentally. Therefore, researchers are presented with the opportunity (or the dire need) to develop molecularly sensitive, high-throughput spectroscopic methods that characterize not only structure but also the dynamics at the same scale presented by computations. The experimental description of dynamics, complemented by modeling at extended time scales, is the challenge presented to those who wish to employ molecular design to advance materials and process performance.
In addition to the traditional evaluation of a new technology, in which we ascertain its cost/sustainability, energy consumption, and our ability to produce the desired product, we must revive our efforts to scrutinize our molecular understanding in order to put in place the proper “equations” that enable one to relate characterization to performance.
This includes but is not limited to increasing the accessibility of in-operando metrological techniques that directly observe the necessary dynamic data. A “back to basics” investigation of fundamental phenomena is necessary in order to test and prove our ability to properly describe deviations from ideal or model behavior (of chemical mixtures, polyelectrolytes, multiphase systems) which effectively represent most, if not all, real processes important for everything from biological function and device performance.
I hope to see an emergence of technologies, strategies, and manufacturing processes that allow for an intimate control of molecular-scale interactions derived from a new fundamental thermodynamic understanding at multiple scales of operation (fabrication, processing, molecular functionality, etc.). In addition, it is a great challenge is to determine not only the parametric space that should be investigated by these new spectroscopic techniques but also to enforce a critical analysis of the accuracy in which this space will be assessed both experimentally and computationally.
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?
A new expertise has been emerging in the functionality and design of complex media, which primarily consist of high-functioning interfacial interactions. For example, many catalytic and separation processes involving complex media require that the energetics of interfacial interactions be able to discern molecules based on adsorption or transport behavior.
This same functionality holds true for biological systems, where accurate discernment of genetic markers determines the functionality or expression of a protein. Interfacial effects at both nanoscale and molecular scale must be more accurately investigated by theory and experiment. Instrumentation that allows engineers to enhance sensitivity to or directly observe interfacial dynamics is a rapidly developing field.
What new industries/research areas do you foresee?
In addition to developing experimental tools, there are also exciting implications of open-source cyber-tools for current and (hopefully) future practices in these areas. Emerging capabilities of online platforms in cyber-tools have enable universities and government-based research projects to transparently host massive amounts of data on these complex multidimensional systems that are accessible to both the lay and scientific community.
In order to remain an attractive profession, chemical engineers must prioritize the incorporation of culturally inclusive and sustainable practices in and out of the classroom and workplace.
There is a future in effectively crowd-sourcing the discovery of anomalies or trends by equipping the “non-scientific” public with enough understanding to practice “citizen science.” We are seeing evidence of support in the astronomical and drug-development communities and should be expecting to develop and communicate skills and a subsequent platform for assessment of big chemical data.
There is also re-emergence of the importance of identifying and understanding statistically significant parametric trends — in other words, advancing our participation in data-science practice and prioritizing the application of statistical analysis (i.e., Bayesian analysis or bootstrapping) into common practice for all experimentalists who report data. This would better guide the field in weighing the importance of parameters and inferring influence of parameters on device, material, or process optimization.
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?
In the last 25 years, chemical engineering has served to populate and substantiate practices in everything from drug discovery to material design.
- The profession will continue to serve as a launching pad for identifying both opportunities/challenges and the solutions for technological advancements.
- The profession will serve as an arena in which the application of physics, mathematics, and chemistry weigh equally in the strategy for discovery and design.
- This profession will remain responsible for translating advanced methods into tangible technologies that result from holistic intelligent design, and should seek to uphold ethical metrics concerning sustainability, human impact (toxicity), and parasitic energy for all new and old processes.
- In order to remain an attractive profession, chemical engineers must prioritize the incorporation of culturally inclusive and sustainable practices in and out of the classroom and workplace.
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.