From the opening plenary session, it was clear that the 68th Canadian Chemical Engineering Conference was going to be a stimulating celebration of ideas that are changing this field, often in dramatic fashion. Robert Magee, president and CEO of the Woodbridge Group of Companies and winner of the Montreal Medal, set that tone immediately in his call for an undergraduate curriculum that reflected the contemporary needs of the profession. More specifically, he wondered aloud why students are still being drilled on the particulars of steam tables but learn little or nothing about the digital technologies that are redefining everyday practice — including how steam table data is managed.
Robert Magee, president and CEO of the Woodbridge Group of Companies and winner of the Montreal Medal.
“Every job inside a factory will utilize digital skills,” he said. “The fast pace of change will require continuous training and upgrading. Curriculum boards must be diverse and ensure curriculum is not just keeping pace, but envisioning and forecasting tomorrow’s requirements. Our incoming chemical engineers need to understand chemistry and be digitally talented.”
Kristi Anseth, a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Colorado.
His thoughts were just the first in a diverse collection of perspectives that gave conference participants a great deal to consider in how their own career paths are unfolding. Plenary speaker Kristi Anseth, a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder, reflected on the progress of her work into some exciting new areas of biology and medicine.
“In this community, there’s a shift in paradigm where there’s interest in designing and developing better drug delivery systems, improved medical devices, new ways to get the body to repair and regenerate tissues,” she said. Anseth described some of the latest findings on the advanced materials that would be incorporated into these innovations, such as hydrogels that can be tailored to meet the needs not only of different types of patients, but of individual patients.
Rubens Maciel Filho, coordinates the bioenergy program of the São Paolo Research Foundation (FAPESP) and James Oldshue Award winner.
In a similar way, a third plenary talk by Brazilian engineer Rubens Maciel Filho, the James Oldshue Award winner who coordinates the bioenergy program of the São Paolo Research Foundation (FAPESP), offered insight into the rapidly changing options for how we obtain the energy that sustains our contemporary lifestyle. He insisted that chemical engineering should do far more than simply enhance that lifestyle; it can also tackle major social problems such as climate change, population growth, and resource scarcity. At the heart of his presentation was the prospect of a circular economy, a system driven not by the use of non-renewable assets such as fossil fuels but instead with biological feedstocks that can be obtained with far less damage to the natural world.
Energy likewise loomed large in a talk by Max Lu, the president and vice-chancellor of University of Surrey. He regarded microfluidics and nanotechnology as the defining features of novel material designs aimed at significantly raising the efficiency of products like solar cells. His own contribution to such progress includes the development of highly reactive titanium oxide crystals that can be sprayed onto the surface of solar panel arrays. His research also touches on a complementary technology — energy-dense supercapacitors that will be able to store solar power so it can be used by consumers in a practical, on-demand fashion.
Jamal Chaouki, professor at Polytechnique Montréal and R.S. Jane Memorial Award Winner.
The role of renewable energy and biofuels in a circular economy is inherent in discussions of what has been called the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a milestone outlined by Polytechnique Montréal professor and R.S. Jane Memorial Award Winner Jamal Chaouki in the conference’s final plenary presentation. While this next phase in technological progress, premised on the rise of sweeping information processing capabilities, is seen to be a logical succession in a historical march from steam engines to nuclear reactors, he suggested that some critical elements of this picture are seldom raised.
“We are missing three realities,” he said, pointing to the need to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions that are threatening the global environment, an output of physical waste that remains unsustainable, and a pressing need to reduce the cost of generating clean energy. By way of demonstrating the imagination that will have to go in to addressing these realities, he provided examples from his own area of interest in microwave heating, which can have transformative effects on biomaterials such as cellulose as well as usher in entirely new strategies for processing heavy oil.
And while there may have been a great deal of technical diversity among these presentations, as well as many more that took place throughout the conference, they all shared the common theme initially articulated by Magee.
“Chemistry and chemical engineering have been at the forefront of advancing the well being of mankind for over 200 years,” he said. “It is my true hope that we can recognize the change that lies before us and rally our discipline to cast aside fears and embrace digital opportunities, lifting both chemical engineering and our great country Canada to higher levels.”