Boosting skills diversity

ICHEME can be justifiably proud of the quality of the graduates trained in the departments it accredits. Over the past decade we’ve seen a burgeoning in the demand for undergraduate places and the creation of new departments and courses to cope. The graduates enter a marketplace that values the skillsets in which they have been trained and educated, with good salaries and worthwhile careers that benefit our economy and our broader society.

However, the degree programmes on offer show a high level of uniformity in terms of the syllabus delivered, with a high degree of focus on the oil and gas industries. This model is not broken and has served the UK well to date but given the lag time in the higher education system, now is the time to ask if this level of homogeneity is desirable or even wise if the profession is to maintain and to build the range of process-based industries needed for a healthy UK economy over the forthcoming decades.

We need to understand better the drivers for change and develop potential avenues which IChemE might wish to explore in order to have graduating courses that fully meet the breadth and quality requirements of new business areas involving biotechnology, advanced materials and complex formulations.

What we need is a model of higher education that achieves sustainability of the profession and contributes to the growth of the UK economy by diversity of delivery for the decades to come. Such intent would respond to the game changing technologies that are emerging for use by the process industries and the consequential opportunities these create for process engineers.

We need to very clearly recognise the necessity of matching supply and demand and the very real risk that the hugely increased number of UK graduates over the last decade might not all find employment in the oil and gas sector. The recent collapse in oil and gas pricing suggests a demand falloff which is already feeding through to job losses in the operating companies. We therefore must have a balanced portfolio of graduate competences to match a varying demand.

Vision of the Future

The healthcare industry serves as one good example of new opportunities for process engineers. Over the past 20 years global healthcare provision has undergone a sea-change from reliance upon small chemical molecules to one where much more complex but highly potent large molecule biological drugs now dominate.

By 2020 it is predicted that eight of the top ten selling drugs will be biologically-derived. These molecules are intrinsically difficult to manufacture; they are highly unstable, require exacting precision of process control during their purification and will often need to be formulated at purities in excess of 99.99% and with impurity levels measured at picogramme dose levels.

Designing the process for manufacture requires skillsets in addition to those of traditional chemical engineers including an appreciation of the underlying biochemistry and biology as well as the unique regulatory environment and also metrology.

In the future, industry will need more suitably-trained process engineers able to manage the crucial dialogue between the drug innovators, the molecular biologists, the enzymologists and the clinician end users. We must question whether most of our existing chemical engineering departments can adequately respond to this need.

The second example draws also upon our burgeoning capacity to achieve valuable products via the exquisite power of biology. The phrase industrial biotechnology (IB) is not new but the appreciation of what it can achieve is only now perhaps becoming apparent. IB is now offering sustainable and environmentally-acceptable routes toward commodity chemicals; synthetic rubber for car tyres, bio-materials for medical applications, high value chemical feedstocks from process and agricultural wastes and a plethora of consumer products in the hygiene, personal care and nutrition space.

This broadening is a result of the exponential developments in genomics, systems biology and synthetic biology which are collapsing development cycles and costs as well as producing a transformational change in process reaction specificity and overall cost of goods. The potential is huge with estimates for the value of gains from IB ranging from £20bn–50bn/y in the UK over the next two decades, although the current values are still relatively small with current UK business turnover in non-pharmaceutical IB at around £2bn and the Pharma sector at an additional £3bn.

Planning for the Future

How can IChemE help to ensure future graduates have the breadth of training and formation necessary to tackle these opportunities?

Fifteen years ago the whynotchemeng campaign catalysed a renaissance of interest in the profession, fuelled by the growth in opportunities for graduates not only in the oil and gas companies but in industries such as pharmaceuticals and food and a vibrant financial sector.

Today the landscape is even more complex and will require our graduates in the 2020s to be confident with chemistry, biology and engineering if they are to take the UK forward into the highly technologically advanced but profitable fields where synthesis will be both biologically and chemically controlled. The UK is superbly placed to exploit this opportunity with an academic, research, development and industrial basis in the life sciences which is second to none. We have shown that process engineering can be applied to these emerging fields and have pioneered for example the discipline of biochemical engineering achieving international recognition and impact.

The time is now right to think boldly about how to train our graduates of 2020 and beyond for the range of opportunities that lie ahead. There is considerable system complexity requiring a high level of interdisciplinary collaboration between life sciences, physical sciences and computational competence to make game-changing innovations in the field of advanced IB and synthetic biology.

Chemical engineers are ideally placed to bridge these boundaries and provide both the intellectual and management leadership to shape successful outcomes. However some specific modular training is required and at present there is anecdotal evidence that many key life science players believe they can get better prepared chemical engineers from European or American universities particularly in terms of understanding of chemistry and the biosciences combined with metrology. The adjustments and additions are not necessarily substantial but could be offered as options together with carefully-designed projects that provide sufficient understanding and the necessary vocabulary to interact with discipline specialists in future roles.

Inspiring the Best Talent

If the UK is going to transform its position it must also inspire and attract the brightest and best students into taking the appropriate courses. This requires a combination of case studies, role models, ambassadors and an understanding of the rich variety of opportunity combined with career experience and reward. A variant of whynotchemeng could be activated to embrace life science chemical engineering.

Organisations such as the Centre for Process Innovation within the High Value Manufacturing Catapult have a rich variety of industrial and academic collaborators in the biotechnology, advanced materials and formulations spaces and can provide many good case studies and role models. By the same token the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC) in Scotland and the Industrial Biotechnology Leadership Forum (IBLF) can add to the library of inspiring examples. Another is the biochemical engineering pioneered at UCL where engineers have been converting life science discoveries into vaccines, regenerative medicine cures and therapeutic drugs. The research and training has generated a new global industry. Successes include the processes for semi-synthetic penicillin production, the world’s first anti-virals against influenza, and the vaccine for cervical cancer.

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