Sir William Wakeham on the Importance of Chemical Engineering

06.09.2011 -

A Wide Range - From Reliance Industries' Mukesh Ambani and SABIC's Mohammed al-Mady to stand-up comedian and perpetual watermelon smasher Gallagher, chemical engineers can be found in almost every walk of life. (And if you have never heard of Gallagher, you can replace him with Dolph Lundgren, who forewent a career in chemical engineering when he found success as Ivan Drago in the movie Rocky IV).

These days, chemical engineering is as diverse as the people who study it, covering areas from biotechnology to mineral processing, and its significance for the chemical industry is now more important than ever. Sir William Wakeham is currently president of the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), a global professional membership organization for people who have an interest in and relevant experience in chemical engineering.

He spoke with Brandi Schuster on how the field has evolved, what IChemE does to encourage students to study chemical engineering and the importance of having chemical engineers in all levels within chemical and pharmaceutical companies.

CHEManager Europe: Sir William, the term "chemical engineering" doesn't have quite the same meaning as maybe 50 years ago. How do you think the profession has evolved?

Sir William Wakeham: These days there is much more of a focus on the word "process engineering" rather than "chemical engineering." Often the processes involved are still chemical, but they now encompass many more things than we thought about 50 years ago. These days you have trained chemical engineers working in many process applications that aren't necessarily within the traditional realm of the chemical industry. One example of that is within the pharmaceutical business, in formulation engineering.

This consists of the construction of pills, which goes hand-in-hand with the drug formulations. That involves quite a lot of chemical engineering, but wouldn't have been thought of as such 50 years ago. It's a similar situation within the water industry. There is a lot of activity which could be considered process engineering, and probably most of the reactions, if there are any, are biological reactions.

All in all, I think the term has been broaden quite a bit over the last several decades in order to include many more aspects and technologies. In fact, the term "chemical engineer" is probably being replaced by "process engineer."

Is the future of chemical engineering one with a very broad base?

Sir William Wakeham: Yes, and in my own experience, trained chemical or process engineers are the kinds of engineers who are most able to work with other disciplines, because they have already quite a breadth in their formation as engineers. That is not quite the same for, let's say, civil engineers whose chemistry training is quite limited. Process engineers have a unique opportunity to bring scientists and other engineers together. Most of the big problems that the world is facing are a bit like that; people have to be brought together from different areas.

What about diversity within the profession, particularly when it comes to women?

Sir William Wakeham: In the UK, total chemical engineering undergraduate numbers are the most positive for women's recruitment of any engineering discipline. In the UK, about 27% of chemical engineering students are women; this is certainly a step in the right direction.

What kind of activities does IChemE have to encourage more people to study chemical engineering?

Sir William Wakeham: We have an enormous focus on bringing people into chemical engineering courses; this has, at least in the UK, pushed the numbers through the roof. We are particularly interested in attracting women, and one of the key elements of doing that is having women on the staff of chemical engineering departments who do the recruitment. Here in the UK, most departments have a substantial number of women on their faculty.

In other areas of the world, such as in the Middle East, there are some cultural issues that are additional difficulty. However, in Malaysia, where we are also active, there are a significant number of women studying chemical engineering now.

Apart from its European offices, IChemE is also represented in Asia, Africa and Australasia. Do you work towards promoting chemical engineering for women in these parts of the world as well?

Sir William Wakeham: Yes. We have been using our activities in the UK as a basis, but fine-tuning it for the different cultural backgrounds. Clearly what needs to be done in Malaysia is not the same thing as what needs to be done in the UK. Our offices in these areas are usually staffed by local people, which is important for creating an understanding of the country's needs.

So you take the cultural sensitivity issues into consideration?

Sir William Wakeham: Very much so. We have in the offices inside these countries; they are usually staffed by people whose background is from that country, in order to get that kind of understanding, because it really is quite significantly different.

Nowadays, more and more CEOs of major players are chemical engineers, such as Reliance Industries' Mukesh Ambani and SABIC's Mohammed al-Mady. What does this say for the profession and for its significance in the chemical/petrochemical industries?

Sir William Wakeham: It is absolutely vital to have a chemical engineering perspective at all levels in the company - from the highest level to the lowest. A background in chemical engineering affords a person the ability to look at a company - or a particular plant or even the entire economy - as a complete system. This is what an education in chemical engineering does to a person:

It instills the notion that there is a complete system that must be taken care of. And the more companies become concerned about sustainability, the more important this kind of approach becomes. If that line of thinking then gets replicated at every level within a company, it obviously becomes very important. The result is that more and more companies and institutions are being led by chemical engineers.

Xi Jinping, who is likely to be appointed president of China next year, has a degree in chemical engineering. Also, Jerzy Buzek, an EU MEP, is also a chemical engineer. There are many strong chemical engineers in many walks of life, and I think that again reflects this ability to comprehend a complete system.

Does this underscore the significance of chemical engineering, not just within the realm of science, but in other areas as well?

Sir William Wakeham: It really does demonstrate the significance of chemical engineering. People with this kind of background are effective in leading other kinds of organizations because of their understanding gained through chemical engineering.

As the president of IChemE, what do you consider to be your single most important message to the industry?

Sir William Wakeham: Exploit the talent of the chemical engineers worldwide! Given that the chemical, petrochemical and pharmaceutical industries are global, it's important for companies to look for talent all over the world. And it is extremely important to make use of the best talent wherever companies happen to find it. Of course, most chemical companies are already doing that, and that offers enormous opportunities for young engineers.

The industry needs to continue to attract the talent and pay them well. That will ensure a robust pipeline of future chemical engineers. We have to keep the flow of students in undergraduate chemical engineering courses. If we give up on this pipeline, I fear we will lose the talent at the beginning, and then it is no good trying to make up for it at the end. 

About Sir William Wakeham

Sir William was appointed as president of IChemE in May. In 2009, he retired as vice-chancellor at Southampton University following eight years in the post. He previously served at Imperial College London for over 30 years. Sir William was knighted in 2009 for services to chemical engineering and higher education.



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