10 April 2019

The wide, wide world of chemical engineering

by Dr Siti Salwa Hashim

At the age of seventeen, the idea of deciding what to do with the rest of my life was quite daunting. I accidentally stumbled into chemical engineering by my sense of wonder and curiosity. In fact, growing up in a small town with no engineers in the family made me a more curious and ambitious person, for which I am still grateful. I wondered what a chemical engineer does and what type of career can I achieve with a degree in chemical engineering.

As I recall, also for the umpteenth time, when I would tell people that I was a chemical engineering student, more often than not they would say, “You do not look like someone who can survive oil and gas.” Back then, I always wished I was confident enough to tell them that chemical engineering is a versatile discipline.

When I ponder upon chemical engineering discipline and how it leads to many possible, exciting industries, it occurs to me that there are several areas that require the expertise of chemical engineers. Take palm oil waste utilisation, for example. Sarawak has been producing palm oil at an accelerating rate since the 1980s and now accounts for 20% of our country’s production.

Nevertheless, for every 100 tonnes of processed oil palm fruit, 22 tonnes of crude palm oil are produced but 67 tonnes of waste remain. With over 63 mills in Sarawak, dealing with such level of waste is a challenge. Palm oil waste can be converted into value-added products using various processes such as direct combustion, gasification, liquefaction, fermentation, and anaerobic digestion. This is where the breadth and depth of training in chemical engineering allows the development of interdisciplinary solutions to utilise palm oil waste.

On the other hand, chemical engineers can look forward to the potential of hydrogen economy. Hydrogen is a fuel of the future due to its diversified supply and ability to reduce emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases. Its share in the energy market is increasing with the implementation of fuel cell systems and the growing demand for zero-emission fuels.

One good example of effective hydrogen usage is the fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) that are powered by hydrogen and have the potential to revolutionise transportation system. In July last year, Sarawak Energy Berhad announced the establishment of its pilot hydrogen production plant and refuelling station project which are scheduled to be completed to test run three hydrogen-powered buses in Kuching by the first quarter of 2019.

Despite the apparent progress, the real translation of these works from the pilot to the wide-scale implementation would require additional momentum, substantial time and significant amount of investment. Chemical engineering is an excellent discipline to catalyse the hydrogen economy in Sarawak through the fields of chemistry, reaction engineering, process modelling and optimisation, and process safety.

Another interesting area with huge potential is solar energy technology. Not only is solar energy pollution-free and often noise-free, it is also becoming the cheapest source of electricity generation as it is practically inexhaustible. There are many areas of opportunity for chemical engineers in the solar industry, in particular to fulfil the need for producing highly efficient solar panels. The higher the efficiency, the more usable electricity is produced.

Crystalline silicon wafers are the single largest cost item associated with making solar panels. The high cost of silicon wafers has limit the widespread use of photovoltaic solar cells. This is where chemical engineers come into the picture where they can make more efficient silicon wafers at reduced cost towards the advancement of solar energy industry.

The above are only three examples of exciting and potential opportunities to explore for chemical engineers. It is hardly surprising that chemical engineers are known as ‘universal engineers’. They are needed in a wide range of industry including manufacturing, petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, healthcare, food processing, oil and gas, biotechnology, microelectronics and more.

Dr Siti Salwa Hashim is a lecturer from the School of Chemical Engineering and Science, Faculty of Engineering, Computing and Science at Swinburne University of Technology, Sarawak Campus. She can be reached via email at shashim@swinburne.edu.my