Editorial: Reflecting on the Future | AIChE

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Editorial: Reflecting on the Future


This is an expanded version of the Editorial that appears in the October 2018 issue of CEP.

Milestone years and anniversaries are occasions for many of us to reflect on the past and think about the future. This is somewhat of a milestone anniversary for AIChE — 110 years since its founding. Ten years ago, CEP celebrated AIChE’s Centennial with a series of articles about the history of the Institute and the profession and the people who were instrumental in shaping that history (see the sidebar in the online version of this editorial for a list and links to the articles). The year-long celebration culminated with a special issue of CEP in November 2008, which included the article “Chemical Engineering in the Next 25 Years,” where 25 of the profession’s thought leaders speculated about what the future holds and how they envisioned chemical engineering evolving.

This year, we revisit that look into the future. In the article by Phil Westmoreland and Clare McCabe (pp. 26–38), some of the 2008 contributors reflect on their visions of chemical engineering and fine-tune their prognostications, and a few new contributors add fresh points of view.

Thinking about the future prompted me to look at how well some previous predictions match today’s reality. A few months ago, I was rummaging through my attic and I came across the Jan. 10, 1983, issue of another magazine with the cover line “Looking at the CPI through 1990.” The editors’ predictions of the most exciting technology sectors for the remainder of that decade — process chemistry, mechanization, and biotechnology — were on-target. They said, for instance: “Computers — both the hardware and the software — will be playing a larger and larger role, doing such things as: controlling processes; helping to design new plants, processes, and chemicals; and even thinking problems through and coming up with answers.” Today’s engineers might read that and wonder, “How else would you control a process or design a plant?” And when it comes to computers thinking through problems — check out the article on artificial intelligence in this issue (pp. 39–46).

The January 2000 issue of CEP marked that millennium year (either the end of one or the start of another, depending on who you ask) with a look at emerging trends in process design. The first article in that issue was indeed prescient — “Process Intensification: Transforming Chemical Engineering” by Andrzej Stankiewicz and Jacob Moulijn, is regarded as the seminal article on the topic. The launch of the Rapid Advancement of Process Intensification Deployment (RAPID) Manufacturing Institute in 2016, and the millions of dollars being spent to develop and commercialize process intensification technologies, are evidence of this trend.

The other articles on emerging trends were also visionary. Process safety expert and longtime consultant to the Center for Chemical Process Safety (CCPS) Dennis Hendershot focused on process minimization to create inherently safer plants, and he envisioned that “small, dedicated plants producing on-demand specific materials at the site where the material is needed will be an important component of the future CPI.” (Such small, modular plants are another focus of RAPID.) In the next article, George Keller and Paul Bryan identified key themes that would drive changes in process design, such as: reducing raw material and capital costs; reducing energy use; increasing process flexibility and reducing inventory; greater emphasis on process safety; increased attention to quality; and better environmental performance. Finally, Tom Edgar explored ways advances in computer hardware and software, coupled with better fundamental models, would change the process design and plant operation.

So why bother looking to the past? As Phil Westmoreland told me: “Reflection on the past can make us more confident and bold about predicting the future.”

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