Building “New Directions for Chemical Engineering” — Together

4/5   in the series ChE in Context

This article is co-authored by Cheryl Grounds, Gayle Gibson, and Phillip R. Westmoreland.

Predicting the future is hard, but envisioning it is crucial to shaping what it will be. The column below examines the recent US National Academies' consensus study on the future of chemical engineering. AIChE and the World Chemical Engineering Council are now working to broaden these insights by gathering similar and different perspectives in different regions and nations.

As stated by electrical engineer and renowned educator Gordon Stanley Brown, “Engineers operate at the interface between science and society.” Chemical engineers are working every day to safely commercialize technical advances to improve our lives. ChEs must work with many stakeholders to solve the world’s most difficult challenges.

That is a key message in the 2022 consensus report “New Directions for Chemical Engineering” from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). It asserts that ChEs can and should play crucial roles in tackling global challenges.

Tackling global challenges

The report identified six technical targets:

Decarbonization of energy systems

ChEs will inform “the selection of options for the scale-up, delivery, systems integration, and optimization of the mix of energy carriers that will address the world’s energy needs with lower carbon emissions and costs across all regions and sectors of society.”

Sustainable environmental solutions

ChEs should address sustainable engineering solutions for environmental systems such as “precision agriculture, non-animal-based food, low-carbon-intensity food production, and reduction or elimination of food waste.”

Engineering targeted medicine

ChEs will find opportunities in the engineering of targeted and accessible medicine, from drug-manufacturing equipment design to applying “quantitative chemical engineering skills to immunology.” This includes cancer immunotherapies, vaccine design, and therapeutic treatments for infectious diseases.

Flexible manufacturing and the circular economy

Green chemistry, distributed manufacturing, and process intensification should be considered during product development to decrease end-of-life impacts and meet circular economy goals.

Novel materials

ChEs should contribute to novel and improved materials for the 21st century based on their knowledge of “chemical synthesis and catalysis, thermodynamics, transport and rheology, and process and systems design.”

Tools to enable the future

Toward these ends, ChEs must work collaboratively to develop tools to enable the future of chemical engineering. Such tools might harness data science and artificial intelligence, modeling and simulation, novel instruments, and sensors.

The importance of education

In addition, the NASEM report reiterates the importance of education. Fostering the next generation requires attracting and engaging diverse students, and preparing both new students and practicing engineers with evolving curricula — taught innovatively and accessibly — that include communication, business, entrepreneurial, and team/leadership skills.

ChEs are already at work creating these technological advances, yet more is necessary than technology. To build these “new directions,” engineers must engage with scientists, policymakers, and the public. Progress in these broad areas requires many diverse insights and talents across technologies, industries, and countries.

Furthermore, ChEs must think beyond the stated design specifications. Experience has taught us that we must be alert to potential unintended consequences of our engineered solutions. The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) requirements for university chemical engineering programs added “including the hazards associated with these processes” in a 2011 revision. This more holistic approach to problem-solving helps engineers consider multiple stakeholder groups.

Such considerations go beyond purely technical matters. Whether ChEs work in a research lab or a manufacturing facility, they are responsible for considering and addressing the impacts of their engineered designs and solutions on society. They should be able to communicate the benefits and costs of their work accurately and completely such that stakeholders engaged in protecting workers, the public, and the environment are able to make informed decisions and set well-informed policies.

Engaging with stakeholders

Important stakeholders may not have science or technology backgrounds. To be effective, ChEs must be aware and accepting of that. For example, the 118th Congress has only eight engineers, while 146 members practiced law and 23 practiced real estate.

Engaging with different stakeholder groups in an open way and listening to different perspectives can help foster new ideas. Their information may be valuably different and they may approach complex problems in different ways. By accepting this diversity, engineers can engage most productively with stakeholders on broad aspects of global challenges and possible solutions.

The PAIC toolkit

AIChE’s Public Affairs and Information Committee (PAIC) recently published a toolkit to help ChEs engage with government and the public about issues and policies. AIChE members can use this new toolkit to achieve the broad engagement that is necessary to commercialize these advances, meet societal needs, and create new directions for chemical engineering. The PAIC monitors policy-related topics relevant to ChEs and society and works to aid communication about areas that need engagement. Learn more. 

This article is also featured in the ChE in Context column of the April 2023 issue of CEP. Members have access online to complete issues, including a vast, searchable archive of back-issues found at