Vijay Swarup is vice president for research and development at ExxonMobil Research & Engineering Company. Over his 27-year career with the company, he has held a variety of engineering, planning, and managerial roles.
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, Vijay Swarup presents his visions for chemical engineering post-2018.
Looking 25 years into the future, how do you expect your industry/research area to evolve?
Over the next 25 years, the energy industry will need to continue to grow and evolve to meet society’s dual challenge: providing the energy needed for economic growth and living standards for an expanding population while also mitigating the risks posed by climate change. To meet this challenge, we will need new technologies — from product extensions that will increase the efficiency of energy use to breakthroughs in fields such as advanced biofuels and carbon capture. All of this will need to be done at scale and must be globally deployable.
The basic principles upon which chemistry and chemical engineering are based will not change, but the tools will continue to evolve. Increased computational capabilities as well as sensors and other analytical tools will continue to underpin technical developments in the energy sector.
In the upstream sector, we will need to continue to identify and produce oil and natural gas; these two energy sources meet more than 55% of global energy demand today, and will continue to do so 25 years from now. These efforts will include advanced exploration technologies and improved reservoir management tools, with the aim of improving the efficiency of oil and gas production. Advances will capitalize on increased computational capabilities, improving both seismic interpretation as well as reservoir management.
In the downstream sector, demand for transportation fuels will continue rising due to economic growth and prosperity, particularly in developing countries. However, for the first time in the history of our industry, this growth will be led not by cars but by demand for heavier fuels for trucks and airplanes. In the near term, this demand for heavier fuels will define desired refinery product slates. At the same time, technology advances in catalysis and separations will lead to more-efficient refinery configurations. Longer term, we see an opportunity for biofuels sourced from algae or cellulose — the key being that they are both scalable and globally deployable. Lubricants also will continue to improve, providing for improved fuel efficiency in the transportation sector.
Also, demand in the chemicals sector will continue to grow faster than GDP, again based on increased living standards. This growth will need to be accompanied with an eye toward sustainability, including items such as plastics recycling and reduction of plastic waste.
From energy to water to medicine, chemical engineering skills will be required to identify and develop the solutions of the future.
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?
The basic principles upon which chemistry and chemical engineering are based will not change, but the tools will continue to evolve. Increased computational capabilities as well as sensors and other analytical tools will continue to underpin technical developments in the energy sector. Modelling will become more efficient and accurate, allowing for advances in multi-scale process development. Improved data analytics and data storage (e.g., the cloud) will allow for remote access to data and more efficient optimization of global networks. Catalysts will continue to be the critical enabler to producing energy and energy products at scale. Next-generation catalysts will couple increased rates with decreased energy use. Bio-based catalysts could provide an opportunity to produce fuels and chemicals at scale with lower emissions. Simply put, we are moving to an “and” period in chemical engineering. The future of the energy industry will involve traditional chemical engineering areas such as transport phenomena and process design and advanced computational capabilities and bio-catalysts and improved sensors and analytics.
What new industries/research areas do you foresee?
The objective of supplying affordable and scalable energy while mitigating the risks associated with climate change will require the evolution of research areas. Core chemical engineering processes will remain the same, but new active materials for catalysis and separations will be needed. Advanced modelling — from grid management to improved manufacturing processes — will be required. And, biology and bio-inspired processes from biofuels to bio-catalysis will likely increase in prominence. The bottom line is that the space between disciplines will decrease. Complementary skills and capabilities will need to be connected in order to develop the energy solutions of tomorrow.
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?
The chemical engineering profession has evolved over the past decades and will continue to evolve in the future. Chemical engineers will be critical to solving future societal needs. From energy to water to medicine, chemical engineering skills will be required to identify and develop the solutions of the future. Communication skills will be key, as the complex challenges of the future will require collaboration across several scientific disciplines as well as interaction with governments and policymakers. Chemical engineers will be a pivotal connector in order to develop solutions that will improve quality of life.
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.