There aren’t many careers where you can say you are creating the future. However, if you’re a Chemical Engineer that’s exactly what you do.
Chemical Engineers are responsible for taking raw materials and changing them into products we use every day of our lives. From plastics to new alloys, from new fuels to new face creams, Chemical Engineers develop not only the products themselves, but also the processes that make those products. Around the world they are working on projects that make a real impact on our environment – everything from producing clean water for communities, to creating new fabrics for our clothes. They are also responsible for Biochemical Engineering, an offshoot of Chemical Engineering, which uses the very latest technology to produce pharmaceuticals, foods and even biofuels — essential in a world with a rapidly growing population.
Carol Boyer-Spooner is the CEO of Chemistry Innovation Ltd, the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) for Chemistry in this country, (prior to that she worked for ICI in Australia for 23 years), and says the industry has a fantastic future. ‘I feel very positive about the future. I feel this is a great country for chemistry and I think the industry here is very strong,’ she says. ‘It is undervalued by the community at large, and to a certain extent by the government, and it is undersold by the industry itself, so there are a few areas where we need to do more work, but the science here is phenomenal. I really do believe the chemical industry here is still cutting edge. We have such a strong base in research and innovation and we need to keep it here.’
One problem for the industry is it doesn’t attract as many people as it should. Boyer-Spooner says there are many reasons for this. ‘One of the reasons is because of the way sciences are approached in the education system. Chemistry, biology, physics they are all lumped together. Also, a lot of teachers are now not doing the experiments that get students excited – you know like dropping Mentos into diet coke – these show chemistry at work in a way they can really relate to, because they can see it happening, and then work out why it happens. This makes it exciting, rather than just sitting down to learn a periodic table.
‘The second thing is, if you think about how people talk about the chemical industry, usually they will talk about how bad it is for the environment, as opposed to the actual dependency we have as a country on chemistry. As an industry we have not been very good at putting a positive spin on what we do. You have to look at the positive angle; we didn’t get these environmental problems in isolation, over the years we have developed plastics because there has been a demand for them, but now we look back over the years and go "My God what have we done?" But as an industry we are working on the problem and trying to find a solution.’
If you are interested in Chemical Engineering as a potential career then Boyer-Spooner says there are great opportunities to move up or sideways. ‘There’s the opportunity to move up the management ladder is that’s what you want, or you can go on a scientific ladder, which works on how many people you are managing, your budget and turnover, so there is more opportunity than just becoming the CEO of the organisation,’ she explains.
For the future she says new water technology, energy (especially biofuels), and environmental issues will all be absolutely crucial areas. The other big growth area will be products. As she says: ‘Think about the iPod – ten years ago it did not exist. It is predicted that 50 per cent of the products we will be using in 2015 we don’t even know about today, so there are real opportunities out there.
‘I think the future of the sector will be more evolution than revolution. In the areas of water, energy, biofuel, environmental, there has got to be some sort of revolution if we are going to make a difference, but in other areas it will be more evolutionary. The whole debate at the moment on bio feedstocks, we are going to have to resolve what we are doing; are we growing them for fuel or for food for livestock? Where do we draw the line? In chemical manufacture we use seven per cent of the world’s oil so just replacing that with bio-fuels does not seem to be the answer, because it is the other 93 per cent that is going to make or break us.’
So, if you’re up for the challenge of helping to find new ways to conserve the earth’s precious resources, while producing new products to replace those that are becoming redundant, now is a great time to be entering the industry.
‘There are not many jobs you can do where you actually create the future, it’s so exciting in that sense, and there’s so much capability in this country. I think the capability in the universities here is just inspiring,’ says Boyer-Spooner. ‘The big question is just how do we convert that into real worth rather than letting it go to India or America. It’s about creating the future. It’s not enough to just say we are clever anymore, we have to make the running as well. That’s the next stage of evolution.’