Chemical engineers in the climate crisis.

Article by Isabel Key and Mina Frost.

Chemistry is the study of substances and the ways in which they react or combine [1]. Chemical Engineering is chemistry for industrial processes and applications to the real world [2]. It has historically been concerned with generating oil and gas [2] – not something you would usually associate with solving climate change! However, chemical engineering plays a central role in combatting climate change. For example:

1) Capturing CO2: in order to limit global warming to 1.5 or 2°C above pre-industrial levels, we will need to remove CO2 directly from the air [4]. For this we could use technology called Direct Air Capture (DAC) [4,18]. The concentration of CO2 in the air is very low, which makes removing it difficult [11]. DAC machines currently require a lot of energy to run and cannot yet be deployed at the required scale [4,11]. We therefore need to continue improving of the chemical reactions involved [4,20].

2) New energy sources: the majority of greenhouse gas emissions come from energy generation (72% in 2013) [6], so adopting low-emission energy sources is a priority [16]. There are a number of options which require more research, for example:

a) Capturing CO2 from coal and gas power stations and storing it underground [11] or using it in the production of a range of products including fuel, concrete, and shoes [7,8,9,10,11].

b) Better nuclear power by using thorium instead of uranium as the energy source [3,21]. Thorium is 3-4x more abundant on the planet than uranium, the operation of the reactor is safer, and it produces less nuclear waste [3,21]. However, there are many challenges to overcome in this operation which require chemical engineering research [3].

3) Sustainable food: chemical engineers can reduce emissions from food production by, for example, improving fertilizer manufacturing [13,14 ] and by using bacteria to digest manure or waste food, which releases gas which is then used as an energy source for humans [15,17].



[2] See: Why study chemical engineering at university?

[3] See: abstract and 6.2


[5] See: e.g. paragraph starting with ‘Energy efficiency as a concept has gained significant attention…’ and Table 1

[6] See: Global Manmade Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Sector, 2013



[9] See paragraph starting: ‘This is part of a small but growing effort to capture and use carbon emissions’


[11] See: 12.2 Direct air capture of CO2 ;2 Current status of CCS development: CO2 capture, CO2 storage, CO2 utilisation

[12] See: Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by sector

[13] See: 11.2.2



[16] See: executive summary, paragraph 5






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