Complex Fluid Formulations: A Source of Inspiration and Innovation | AIChE

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Complex Fluid Formulations: A Source of Inspiration and Innovation

SBE Special Section

Chemical engineers are well positioned to design and manufacture formulated liquid products, but formulated product design is not often taught in a unified way.

Every one of us uses or interacts with formulated products many times each day. Many of the foods, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, cleaners, and personal care products that are ever-present in our homes and workplaces are formulated products.

Formulated complex fluids are ubiquitous across a wide range of industries (1); they are used in agricultural sprays and coatings, cements, paints, and putties, and they play an essential role in energy production as components of lubricants, drilling muds, and fracking fluids (2).

Despite the number and scale of the industries making and using multifunctional complex fluid products, the design of formulated materials is generally not taught by universities in any conceptually unified fashion. Even when they are studied, as in food science, cosmetic, and pharmacy programs, links to more-fundamental research on complex fluids are often missing or limited. As a result, commercial formulations are often designed and developed independently, on an industry-by-industry or company-by-company basis.

A relatively small number of expert formulators who developed their expertise over long careers hold much of the intuition for formulation design. Students with some training in relevant sciences, like physics, chemistry, or chemical engineering, usually lack the ability to design or formulate products, even at the PhD level, and learn to do so only after being hired.

We feel that this state of affairs is inefficient and can hamper innovation. The design of formulated chemical products can be understood — and should be taught — in a coherent, conceptual fashion. A unified framework that bridges academic research and industrial expertise would provide benefits for both sides. Empowering a broad base of students to think in terms of formulation science and engineering, and providing the tools and materials to tinker in this realm, offers opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship in multiple industries. Early understanding of the formulation process also gives students insight into an often-overlooked, but increasingly prevalent, career track in chemical engineering (3).

This article describes the fundamentals of complex fluid product formulation — the basis of designing formulated products — and highlights the need for improved educational paradigms in the field.

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