The Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) has released a major new report detailing how its members can play a key role in developing more environmentally sustainable technologies and committing the international body to supporting the transition towards a low carbon economy.
As a statement of intent it is similar to that made by many other such groups in recent months, but what is significant about this report is that chemical and biochemical engineers not only have a central role to play in developing low carbon technologies, many of them also work for some of the world's most polluting companies.
"When you consider many of our members work for the oil majors this [report] is a commitment from individuals well placed within the energy sector [to make a difference]," observed Andrew Furlong, director of policy at IChemE. "This is a recognition that we cannot continue to operate in the way we do currently and have to do something about it."
Given the professions of some of its members the ICHemE also takes a number of controversial positions in the report: recommending a significant increase in the price of water, calling for a new legislative framework to promote the deployment of carbon capture technology, and raising concerns about the sustainability of the current bio-fuel boom.
"The planet faces a number of challenges and chemical engineering is a major solutions provider," said Furlong. "There are a lot of green chemical engineering technologies that can be deployed now, but it is the market and the legislative framework that is stopping adoption."
He cited the problem of water scarcity, such as that currently being experienced in Australia, as a prime example of such market and legislative failures. "There are interesting technologies available for tackling water scarcity, such as solar assisted desalination, but the economics of the water industry do not make development feasible," he said. "Unless there is universal metering and realistic charging for water people will continue to treat it as a free resource."
He added that the burgeoning biofuel industry was facing similar structural problems and was in danger of delivering disastrous humanitarian and environmental consequences as prices for crops rise leading to conflict between crops for food and crops for fuel.
Again Furlong argued that there was an urgent need for further investment in new technologies capable of delivering a second generation of more energy and water efficient biofuels. "IChemE recognises that first generation biofuels are not viable and we need to develop a second generation that are based on non-food crops and use the whole plant by gasifying it and creating synthetic biofuels," he said."This technology is out there and can deliver a five fold increase in energy yield per hectare."
Furlong is confident that IChemE's green commitments will be embraced by its members despite their often being employed by traditionally non-green businesses.
"We are celebrating the 50th anniversary of our being granted a Royal Charter, and in that charter it says that our duty is to serve the public interest," he said. "We are using this report as a reminder to our members that they have this duty whether they work for a small SMB or are on the board of BP."
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