Students could be seen squirming in their seats while Shafiq Jaffer, MCIC, listed the world’s woes. As Vice-President of Corporate Science and Technology Projects in North America for the French energy giant TOTAL, his career has given him a front-row seat for some of the biggest challenges facing our civilization: climate change, finding energy sources to meet the needs of rapidly developing countries, and feeding a planet full of ever more humans without destroying the planet’s carrying capacity along the way. All of it makes for a tall, seemingly impossible order to fulfill and yet he insisted on optimism when it comes to managing the resources that have brought us so far.
“The number one thing we can do is improve the efficiency of how we use those resources,” he explained, referring to the delicate balance that must be struck between embracing new technologies such as renewable energy that have yet to become economically viable while reducing the environmental impact of established processes that will continue to rely on traditional sources of energy like fossil fuels.
Achieving that efficiency, he insisted, was precisely the job for those same students in the audience. While it is comparatively easy to dwell on the many challenges we face, argued Jaffer, chemical engineers are among the few who will be in a position to develop approaches that can successfully address those challenges. He pointed to the need for new materials and new processing capabilities that will only emerge from those with the talent, technical background, and time to work on them — those same squirming students.
Jaffer was among the plenary speakers at the 69th Canadian Chemical Engineering Conference, which took place last month in Halifax. These daily presentations covered a broad spectrum of topics confronting the profession, each touching on some aspect of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals. From clean technology to tackling poverty through nutrition, speakers started with problems that are all too familiar, including environment, economic inequality, and health.
In each case, the speaker’s own career exemplified the way in which chemical engineers find themselves uniquely positioned to tackle problems that might otherwise seem to be intractable. Levente Diosady, FCIC, a professor in the University of Toronto’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry, recounted the research and development stages that he has followed for decades in designing micronutrients that could be added to common foodstuffs consumed in parts of the world where these essential parts of a healthy diet are often missing.
“We have demonstrated that we can save a large number of lives for essentially less than 25 cents per person per year,” he said, pointing to the tangible progress that a comparatively simple chemical innovation brought to a significant portion of humanity.
Similar messages were underscored by the four speakers chosen as this year’s Emerging Leaders in Chemical Engineering, who outlined the various ways in which tools and concepts that are already available to us can be applied to achieve goals that might look unreachable to the uninformed eye. Joule Bergerson, an associate professor with the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering, suggested that many of our most pressing problems arise from our inability to reconcile divergent points of view on crucial topics, such as the value of carbon sequestration to offset climate change trends. She linked this difficulty to the way in which some of our most effective technical strategies are underutilized, such as applying life cycle assessment only later in a technology development process, when it might play a much greater role if it were brought in at the beginning of this process.
Daria Boffito, MCIC, an assistant professor in chemical engineering at Polytechnique Montréal, made some similarly fundamental observations about how processes could be intensified and optimized. We are inclined to see gains made at the macroscopic level of redesigning a chemical plant, she suggested, but that is an expensive and energy-demanding proposition. Much greater change can be achieved by examining that process at a smaller scale, even to the fine point of re-designing molecular interactions in a way that can introduce innovations in the most cost-effective and energy efficient manner.
“I believe there is no recipe for success,” said Boffito, when asked by a student about how they should approach their own career aspirations. She added the best ideas are the ones that emerge from a passion for the field. Bergerson concurred and recommended that students remain open to the many possibilities that are bound to open up before them. “It’s great to have goals but be flexible with opportunities that come to you along the way.”
Benoît Lessard, MCIC, another of the emerging leader speakers, added that those opportunities could arise in areas that lie well outside of what students might regard as their expertise. He holds the Canada Research Chair in Advanced Polymer Materials and Organic Electronics at the University of Ottawa, a post with a multidisciplinary mandate that makes for rich possibilities.
“Being able to work well with chemists and biologists and chemical engineers is really powerful,” he said. “A lot of the research ends up being at the interface between different worlds.”
Above all, students attending the conference gained a clear perspective on the leading role that Canada plays at some of the most exciting of these interfaces. Joy Romero, MCIC, Vice-President of Technology and Innovation at Canadian Natural Resources Limited, encouraged them all to become members of the Clean Resource Innovation Network, a diverse group of group professionals, entrepreneurs, government representatives, and academics dedicated to helping Canada’s hydrocarbon energy sector build the country’s sustainable, carbon-competitive, and diversified economy.
Romero discussed technologies being developed to improve the extraction of petroleum from the Alberta oils sands, which represent innovations that Canadians should feel duty-bound to bring to the rest of the world as a means of multiplying the effect on the global economy and environment.
“When you talk about the responsibility and influence that we have as engineers,” she concluded, “we can punch well above the weight of the 1.6% of global emissions that we deliver to the world.”