Curt R. Fischer, Stanford University: The Future of Chemical Engineering

Curt Fischer is head of the Metabolic Chemistry Analysis Center in Stanford University’s ChEM-H program (Chemistry, Engineering and Medicine for Human Health). In 2008, he was a PhD candidate in the MIT Laboratory for Bioinformatics and Metabolic Engineering with Prof Gregory Stephanopoulos.

During AIChE’s centennial year of 2008, AIChE interviewed Dr. Fischer to learn his vision for chemical engineering’s future. In today’s blog post, we contrast some of Fischer’s responses to the 2008 interview with his perspectives in 2018.

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

In 2008, Fischer wrote:

In the traditional chemical process industries, market fundamentals will result in increased prices for fossil fuels. As a result, non-traditional feedstocks such as biomass will increasingly displace fossil fuels as feedstocks of choice. 

Additionally, because of the highly distributed nature of biomass, solar energy, carbon dioxide, and other non-traditional feedstocks, the chemical process industries will increasingly prefer processes and products viable at scales much smaller than is common in today’s integrated petrochemical refinery complexes.

Focusing specifically on the industrial biotechnology sector (as opposed to the chemical process industries in general), however, creates somewhat the opposite impression. Industrial biotechnology will find increasing application in the manufacture of high-volume commodity chemicals, not just niche higher-value fine chemicals as is common today. Cargill’s production of poly(lactic acid) and DuPont’s production of 1,3-propanediol serve as early examples of this trend.

Emerging capabilities in the design of microbial, enzymatic, and “traditional” catalysts will shorten and facilitate process development times. As a result, the industry will become more a field of molecular design as well as process design. This trend is already apparent in the medical biotechnology sector, and I believe it will cross over into the industrial sector increasingly in the next 25 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?

In 2008, Fischer wrote:

Chemical process industries that are fed by biomass rather than fossil fuels will likely constitute a new sector. This new sector has been widely heralded and I have highlighted possible elements of its development above.

Other new sectors in the chemical process industries based on alternate feedstocks are also likely to develop. For example, as nanotechnology and materials science develop improved photoharvesting materials, the sun may become an important feedstock for some chemical manufacturing operations. Carbon dioxide captured at the stacks of fossil fuel-burning power plants or even from the atmosphere is another example. Integration of the chemical process industries into newly constructed nuclear power plants is another sector which may possibly develop in the chemical process industries.

All of these examples serve to illustrate that the feedstocks for the chemical process industries will diversify relative to the petroleum and natural gas feedstocks preferred today. This move toward diversity will likely make the chemical process industries more complex; atmospheric carbon dioxide, agricultural biomass, and nuclear-derived heat energy obviously differ radically in their physicochemical properties. New sectors will likely develop to handle the technical idiosyncrasies of each.

The need for ethical, technically competent chemical engineers skilled in the art of public communication is not going away. 

What new industries/research areas do you foresee?

In 2008, Fischer wrote:

Advances in molecular simulation are already facilitating the de novo design of enzyme biocatalysts. In parallel, “omics”-based analytical technologies are beginning to permit the de novo design of desired functions in living microbial systems. For example, microbes can be synthesized which catalyze not only a single reaction, but entire desired reaction pathways. Additionally, quantum computing is driving advancements in the design of traditional homogenous and heterogeneous catalysts as well.

In time, these techniques for catalyst design will become commoditized. The chemical process industries will be increasingly reliant on them for the rapid development of high-yielding, specific processes for the conversion of feedstocks to new molecular products. These techniques will shorten process development times for the manufacture of new molecular products. As process development timelines shorten, so likely will the lifetime of any one particular molecular product — an improved replacement may never be far behind. These considerations, combined with the distributed nature of tomorrow’s feedstocks, may drive trends towards chemical processes with lower capital.

Here are Dr. Fischer’s reflections on the same topics in 2018:

Well, I was wrong about increased prices for fossil fuels setting the stage for a biomass-fueled chemical industry. It hasn’t happened yet, and the annual failure of the renewable fuels industry to live up to Congress’s 2007 production mandates does not bode well for near-term progress. It’s too early to give up on the idea entirely, of course. But my takeaway is that predicting commodity markets isn’t something that engineering PhD students (or maybe anyone) should attempt. Lesson learned!  

I did better in predicting that better computational and measurement tools would accelerate the design of new chemical products and processes. That is happening — not as fast as I thought it would back in 2008, but we are making real progress along this front. Using agricultural biomass, solar energy, atmospheric CO2, and nuclear energy as inputs into new chemical processes is growing research areas that still have potential. But there hasn’t been a wholesale reconfiguration of our industry just yet.

What’s my sense of what the next 25 years will be like for our profession? The past 10 years have humbled my perspective, so now I can only say “I don't know.” The need for ethical, technically competent chemical engineers skilled in the art of public communication is not going away. More than that is tough to say.

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Richard Rice's picture

I appreciate your honesty and willingness to diminish some of your predictions from the past. I belong to the Steady-State Society, which promotes the ideas of "no or slow" growth for the world, opposite from most STEM pundits. All the really negative things on the planet, from pollution to Earth warming, are caused by an excessive growth of people. We need to reduce the rate of Entropy production, and if we intend to save Earth, we need to reduce population down to a sustainable 2 to 3 billion, relative to the near 7 billion now extant. If we can breed all our pets and farm animals to certain high standards, we can and should do the same for mankind. Vast freedoms to reproduce without means to feed the new born must be curtailed, by natural processes if possible. A wave of the over-produced people is clamoring at our borders, demanding access to our largess even as I write. This land is your land only as long as you can hold it. Sadly, all men are not created equal. Good luck in your career, and best wishes, Richard G. Rice, "Dick" Emeritus Professor