Roadmap for the future
Photo illustration by Joy Smoker April 04, 2022
The late UD Prof. Babatunde Ogunnaike played a key role in a new report on the future of chemical engineering
It’s been more than three decades since the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine evaluated the impact and future direction of chemical engineering, a field that touches everything from the medicines we rely on to how we power our homes and even the device you’re using to read this article. Now, and thanks in large part to the late University of Delaware Prof. Babatunde “Tunde” Ogunnaike’s contributions, there is a clear vision for what is needed to excel in chemical engineering research, education and industrial innovation over the next 30 years.
“It’s fitting that Tunde’s legacy as a scholar and leader will help guide the future of chemical engineering in the coming decades through his contributions to this report,” said Levi Thompson, dean at the UD’s College of Engineering. “His wise counsel has been a blessing for many of us, and now it lives on in this roadmap for the challenges we now all face together. I’m grateful for all of his contributions to the field, and miss him dearly.”
The “New Directions for Chemical Engineering” report calls for significant investment in chemical engineering research and advances to address energy and sustainability needs in the face of climate change, to educate the new generation of engineers and scientists, to improve medical access and treatments and promote collaboration of experts around the world to work on society’s most pressing challenges.
Just as the invention of Ziegler-Natta catalysts for polymers led to the many beneficial uses of plastics, the report notes that chemical innovations “are at the heart of the technologies that have enabled modern society.” That’s why an intentional direction for chemical engineering advances is needed to address modern-day challenges. Supporting innovation means supporting new sustainably focused research, the kind that can already be seen in UD engineering labs run by award-winning educators and engineers who are re-examining the future of manufacturing, converting waste into useful products, tackling plastic pollution and greenhouse gasses, discovering new medical tools and much more.
“I think what’s exciting is that you see the opportunities,” said Eric Furst, chair of UD’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. “The report is really forward-looking and takes a careful and deliberate look at what these next 30 years might look like.”
On the final day of February 2022, the Committee on Chemical Engineering in the 21st Century: Challenges and Opportunities, the group that authored the study, announced that the report would be dedicated to Ogunnaike, who was the William L. Friend Chair of Chemical Engineering and former dean of the College of Engineering. He died on Feb. 20, 2022, shortly after the report was released.
“Tunde’s contributions can be seen in every part of the report,” said Eric Kaler, chair of the authoring committee, president of Case Western Reserve University and former dean of UD’s College of Engineering. “He had a broad and deep knowledge of our field, and his perspective and clear thinking both empowered forward thinking and constrained the growth of bad ideas.
Focusing on the future
Ogunnaike was one of 17 committee members who co-wrote the recently released report. This distinguished group of chemical engineers from industry and academia worked collaboratively for more than two years to develop the 300-plus-page report, largely having to meet virtually due to the pandemic.
“Dr. Ogunnaike has always been a thoughtful scholar. In particular for the report, he was very useful in discussions and thought-provoking ideas for the health and medicine-related content, and he was very involved in the areas of education and the use of computing for chemical engineering,” said Anne Skaja Robinson, committee member, former UD faculty member and current department head of chemical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering. “We all feel the loss of him to the field — his broad knowledge, his precise and thoughtful approach to writing, and warm brand of humor were all incredibly important to the report moving forward.”
The study is an update to the previous consensus report on the future of the field, “Frontiers in Chemical Engineering: Research Needs and Opportunities” (also known as the Amundson Report), which was published in 1988. A lot has changed in the last 30-plus years, and the pace of change continues to accelerate.
The report is a forward-looking attempt to address today’s challenges, the principal being climate change, Kaler said, as well as future opportunities in growing areas like artificial intelligence and data science. From decarbonizing world economies to recycling and adopting “circular economy” models to limit environment and health impacts, the report highlights the need for interdisciplinary collaborations and innovations while seeking sustainable solutions.
“Chemical engineering is often at the heart of solutions to many of the problems we face, but for our field to stay in a position of global leadership and continue our pace of innovation, we need to reaffirm strong investment in this field,” Kaler said in a press release announcing the report. “We lay out a detailed path forward for where research investments and interdisciplinary, cross-sector collaborations should be targeted to maximize the impact and benefit of chemical engineering to the world in the coming decades.”
The National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals (better known as NIIMBL) based at UD, which has received millions in federal support for recent biopharmaceutical research, is a prime example of the solution-seeking opportunities that arise from a collaborative, industry-involved effort led by a chemical engineer. In addition to NIIMBL, UD has also prioritized this important research front through the work underway at other institutions such as the the Center for Composite Materials, the Center for Plastics Innovation, the Center for Research in Wind, the Gerard J. Mangone Climate Change Science and Policy Hub and the Delaware Energy Institute.
The report also acknowledges the role chemical engineers have played in creating the same problems they’re trying to solve, from greenhouse gas emissions, plastic pollution and the indefinite presence of chemicals in the environment.
“Thus the field of chemical engineering today faces opportunities and challenges not only to innovate for the future, but also to innovate in ways that repair the unintended consequences of the past,” the report says. Scientists and engineers must consider the repercussions of new advances and technologies while trying to solve current and future challenges.
The study doesn’t focus solely on sustainability in the face of the climate crisis, but the authors do make several funding-related recommendations urging federal investments in low-carbon technology development and improved processes that aid in the transition to a circular economy. The report also highlights the need for innovations in manufacturing, advances in medicine that result not only in better treatments, but also more equitable and affordable access, and increasing international collaborations across sectors to find successful solutions.
Ogunnaike played a leading role in writing about “tools to enable the future of chemical engineering” to address those varied needs, largely by considering future applications of technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning. The entire report was a team effort, Kaler said, but Ogunnaike’s clear and fluid writing, combined with his immense breadth of knowledge, valuable insights and broad vision “made him a perfect committee member.”
“He understood the industrial research point of view, he could connect an academic output for a real need and was also just a first-rate scholar,” Kaler said. “He was a consensus builder and a thought leader in a way that moved parts of the report forward significantly.”
A modern-era update
When the last forward-looking consensus study on chemical engineering was written more than 30 years ago, there was no diversity on the committee and only one female engineer involved, said John Anderson, president of the National Academy of Engineering.
The Amundson Report also didn’t address challenges related to sustainability or a pandemic, only mentioned climate change once, and lacked an emphasis on the workforce in chemical engineering.
“The path forward is clearly laid out for us,” Anderson said during a Feb. 28 webinar. “Now we have to execute it.”
Executing the dozens of recommendations laid out by world-renowned engineers hinges on investment in innovative research and development from the start. Kaler notes in his preface that failure on the part of the United States to invest in the future of chemical engineering — while other leading nations like China invest heavily — would “cede global leadership not only of chemical engineering, but of technology more broadly.”
In addition to the immense amount of funding needed for the research and development of the ideas laid out in the report, it also emphasizes the need to invest in training and fostering the next generation of chemical engineers in a way that increases diversity and collaboration in the field.
“The representation of women and the representation of people of color among graduates from chemical engineering programs has remained relatively flat over the past decade or so,” said Maggie Walser, academies study director and associate executive director of the Division on Earth and Life Studies. “I think, like many fields in STEM, chemical engineering is reckoning with this fact that we have to be welcoming and inclusive of everyone if we’re going to move this field forward.”
Developing undergraduate curricula that addresses those interdisciplinary needs and new directions for research is critical, the report argues. Exposing graduate students to more hands-on learning opportunities and internships, while also offering new avenues for diverse students to pursue STEM careers, will also be key in helping America regain a competitive standing on the technology front.
The experts recommend removing barriers that make it difficult for students who attended 2-year programs to transfer to 4-year programs, or students with different undergraduate degrees to pursue graduate studies in chemical engineering. Giving fair consideration to students, no matter how prestigious the name of the institution on their undergraduate degree may be, also could enrich the skills, experience and interdisciplinary backgrounds of the future cohort of problem solvers.
“The recommendations related to education are aimed at making sure the students who are graduating in the coming decade and beyond are not only prepared for where the field is going, but that demographically they’re representative of the country,” Walser said. “Tunde, who took his teaching responsibilities very seriously, recognized the importance of supporting students. He truly cared about the impact of his work and his role as a mentor.”
The peer-reviewed report received funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, and 45 academic departments, private companies and professional organizations. To read the full report, go to nap.edu/catalog/26342/new-directions-for-chemical-engineering.