Conference Publication Details
Mandatory Fields
Byrne, E.P.
14th Asia Pacific Confederation of Chemical Congress, APCChE 2012, Singapore
Educating fit for purpose 21st century chemical engineers; appreciating complexity, inherent uncertainty and a broader perspective
Optional Fields

Educating fit for purpose 21st century chemical engineers; appreciating complexity, inherent uncertainty and a broader perspective

Edmond P. Byrne*

Department of Process and Chemical Engineering

University College Cork (National University of Ireland, Cork), Ireland

*Corresponding Author’s E-mail:

Keywords: Chemical Engineering Education; Complexity; Uncertainty; Sustainability.

Extended Abstract

Chemical engineering is a child of the industrial revolution. The achievements of chemical engineering facilitated developments associated with modern society throughout the twentieth century, from when ‘after the first world war chemical engineers in America took the petroleum industry by the scruff of the neck and virtually revolutionized it’ (Freshwater, 1998) through the development of off-shoot products such as plastics, polymers and composite materials and the development of processes for the provision of plentiful supplies of food, safe water and medicines.

The sky literally was the limit. No problem was insurmountable; as a result of the outstanding successes of chemical engineers in fractionating oil for example, and in developing synthetic fertilizer and nuclear fission technologies there emerged a series of innovations and developments across virtually all aspects of society through energy, food, transportation, medicine and consumer goods.

The dominant twentieth century paradigm across all of engineering, science, economics and society in general was that humanity’s great ‘problems’ could be solved largely by rational scientific and technological endeavour. In response to the problem of greater demand for oil and it’s by products, chemical engineers searched for new and innovative ways of sourcing more fossil fuels from ever harsher environments. In response to the problems of water shortage and increasing demand, ever larger dams and diversion systems were installed. Similarly to feed an ever growing and affluent global population, natural habitats were destroyed for food production and productivity was increased through ever more intensive agricultural methods. Meanwhile scientific and technological innovation ensured a continued supply of cheap processed food whose manufacture was achieved through sourcing cheap raw materials and ingredients. In this societal model, ever increased consumption was a necessary and desirable function of economic growth and the role of the chemical engineer was essentially to act as cog in the wheels that served society’s (ever increasing) needs and hence ensure that supply could always meet demand through the twin aims of increased production and efficiency. As the century went on, the imposition of constraints around safety and environmental effects became increasingly important.

Problem solving in this context has essentially amounted to defining a problem and its system boundaries in as narrow a frame as possible, and then reducing it to some (what are considered) key components by making a number of simplifying assumptions so that it could be solved in a systematic and rational way ‘all other things being equal’. The problem with this approach however is that, as (MIT mechanical engineering professor emeritus) Louis Bucciarelli points out (2003), all else is rarely equal. Essentially this approach does not recognise inherent system complexity. Rather it attempts to characterise such systems as simple, or at least as complicated ones which can be ‘solved’ through a rational deterministic scientific and ‘value free’ approach. This approach is endemic across modern society and does not recognise nor cannot handle inherent uncertainty (‘unknown unknowns’) and hence cannot deal with complexity.

Recognition of complexity leads one to recognise that a narrow conception of science or technology cannot provide definitive answers, particularly in a world where ever expanding consumerism puts us on a collision course with the earth’s biophysical limits. Uncertainty is an inherent feature of complex systems. Once this is recognised, uncertainty becomes less problematic and indeed a necessary and useful requirement for emergence and creativity. Such an acceptance releases the engineer from the largely futile goal of trying to reduce complex systems so as to accurately predict future behaviour. Instead of assuming deterministic or predictable responses to system inputs, there is recognition that such systems are constantly evolving and may undergo rapid transformation into irreversible and unpredictable new states once certain undefined far-from equilibrium tipping points are reached. System knowledge can therefore only ever be provisional. It is also a function of context and scale. Different agents have different conceptions of how a given problem might be defined as well as how it might best be tackled. The ‘object world’ view of the ‘expert’ chemical engineer is not the same as that of the ‘expert’ accountant which in turn differs from that of the ‘non expert’ local resident who nevertheless may have good experiential knowledge, and so on. This raises some important implications:

1. Values (as much as happenings and ‘facts’) are important in determining problem definitions and proposed actions – differing values lead to different proposed definitions and actions.

2. For complex systems, problems cannot be uniquely defined, nor do they posses ‘optimum solutions’; instead different actors will have different perspectives and possible ‘resolutions’, each of which may offer useful insights and options. Both technical and scientific theory and experiential knowledge are necessary in informing the behaviour of complex systems.

3. In systems where uncertainty cannot be tamed and system behaviour cannot be predicted the precautionary principle is appropriate.

While simple and complicated models are sufficient in describing many (less complex) chemical engineering processes and phenomena, this is not the case for many of the spheres that chemical engineers are working in through the twenty first century. Our system boundaries are continually extending and multi-disciplinary teams are required to an increasing extent in tackling ever more complex issues. There is thus an essential shift occurring in the very context that we work and professional institutions are increasingly recognising this. In 2007, the UK based Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE, 2007) published a roadmap for the chemical engineering profession in which it identified what it considers are the key themes for chemical engineers this century. These are: Sustainability and sustainable chemical technology; Health, safety, environment and public perception of risk; Energy; Food and drink; Water and Bioprocess and biosystems engineering. All the above involve macro level complex systems that directly affect society. The skill set required by chemical engineers in meeting these challenges demands a fundamental appreciation of complexity and uncertainty. Having surpassed many of the earth’s biophysical limits, we longer have the option of dealing with emerging problems around food, water, safety and the environment through simple ‘solutions’ generally requiring ‘more’ (production and efficiency). In this context, ‘normal’ scientific and engineering solutions are no longer amenable and the chemical engineer of today must harbour a critical understanding of the relationship between social and technological pressures and a set of ethical values that embraces a broader professional perspective aimed at helping make the world a better place for all. Such an approach provides chemical engineers with increasing opportunities to work with other professionals and peer groups in helping resolve and ameliorate the substantial and existential issues ahead. This new conception of chemical engineering is one which extends the role and scope of the profession. It will play an ever increasing role in the evolution of our professional programmes, due in no small part to global economic and societal trends as well as the evolving culture and expectations of our professional bodies. It may be reflected throughout our programmes which can be designed to facilitate student engagement with complexity, uncertainty and sustainability as the very context for contemporary professional practice. The end result can be a positioning of chemical engineering as an even more relevant and attractive profession, with the potential to play a key role in realising genuine prosperity and flourishing across society.


1. Freshwater, D.C. People, pipes and processes: a short history of chemical engineering and the

Institution of Chemical Engineers, England: IChemE, 1997.

2. IChemE A roadmap for 21st century chemical engineering, Institution of Chemical Engineers, England: Institution of Chemical Engineers, 2007.

3. Buciarelli, L.L. Engineering Philosophy, Netherlands: Delft University Press, 2003.
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