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Ask a Chemical Engineering Expert – Seán Moran
We sit down with Seán Moran, the voice of chemical engineering to ask him 10 questions about his field and area of expertise.
- What is your particular area of expertise?
I am a chemical engineer, and my professional specialty is process plant design. Most of the plants I have personally designed have been water and effluent treatment plants, though I have designed some pharmaceutical plants as well. Nowadays I more often troubleshoot problems with other people’s design processes than design plants myself, as an expert witness in commercial disputes about bad design practice.
I am also a teacher of chemical engineering, again specializing in process plant design. I used to be coordinator of design teaching at the University of Nottingham, and I assist a number of universities around the world in developing a more realistic design curriculum. I teach undergrads, university teaching staff and professional engineers around the world how to design robust cost-effective and safe process plants. I have written two books to assist with this: “An Applied Guide to Process and Plant Design” and “Process Plant Layout”. Both are about general process plant design, but I have just signed a contract to write “An Applied Guide to Water and Effluent Treatment Plant Design” about my specialist area of design.
- How would you explain your current work to a stranger on a bus?
The tricky bit about explaining what a chemical engineer does is that most people don’t know what a chemical engineer is (and as I have discussed before, many people who think they are chemical engineers don’t know what a chemical engineer is) So there are two parts to it if you want them to understand. Firstly, what is a chemical engineer? Someone who designs or supervises the operation of process plants, like oil refineries, water treatment plants, or chemical factories. Then: what is my job – I design plants to clean up water, I teach other people to do the same, in person or via books.
- Where do you carry out most of your work?
I mostly work from home nowadays, though I travel around the UK, and to the middle and far east quite regularly. I live in a small quirky market town on the edge of the Peak District in the UK, so working from home is a pleasure. I don’t miss the commute I used to have to do for my University job.
- What first inspired you to study Chemical Engineering?
I actually studied biochemical engineering. I have always enjoyed both biology and engineering. My motivation was to do an ethical job which helped the environment, which is why I always wanted to work on the environmental side of the profession. I think biochemical engineers bring a biologist’s intuitive understanding of complex self-regulating systems to chemical engineering, in addition to the more mathematical approach of the typical chemical engineer.
- What’s the most exciting part of your job?
Being cross-examined by a barrister in court as an expert witness is pretty exciting, but I am most excited by ideas. Quite often I will wake with something in my mind that I just have to write, and as I write the argument unfolds. When I was teaching undergrads, I was also similarly excited to see the designs they submitted, and figure out how where they had gone wrong showed I needed to tweak my teaching.
- What keeps you awake at night?
Not much nowadays, except the first night in a new hotel far from home, especially if it is one of those with an all-night nightclub which they neglected to mention when you booked.
- What false preconceptions do people have about your job?
There are many. Most of my deep green friends think that chemical engineers are the problem rather than the solution. Many people think that chemical engineers are industrial chemists. There are civil engineers who think that we just select items from a catalogue (how much does a ton of pumps cost, anyway?) Some of my academic friends think that they are engineers rather than academics because they work in an engineering department. I think there are few disciplines less well understood than chemical engineering
- What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned this week?
That the alternative to blending process plant into its surroundings is to make it better than its surroundings, as the picture of a giant minion in an ugly area of refineries and tank farms near Harburg docks shows.
- What do you think will be the next big discovery or development in your field?
That chemical engineering practice and research have almost entirely lost touch with each other.
- How have you used books for your own professional research and how it influenced your work, research or thinking, or help you solve a problem in your field? What outcome did it lead to?
Though I learned the rudiments of engineering from books, the development of my design practice was mostly not from materials in the public domain. In-house confidential design manuals and resources, and conversations with experienced engineers were my sources in learning how process plant design is done.
Books were of most use in my personal development when I came to try to teach design in an academic environment. I learned design by repeated guided practice. I learned the principles by implication. In order to teach it academically I had to know what I knew and how I knew it. I had to make it explicit.
Books such as Vincenti’s “What Engineers Know and How They Know It” made me reconsider my assumption that I was an applied scientist, and realize that engineering has its own distinctive mix of epistemologies different from those of science, and that the essence of engineering is design.
This led to an approach to the teaching of chemical engineering contextualized by an unbroken strand design practice throughout the course which was very successful at Nottingham, and which I am helping others to develop in their own institutions.
About the author
Professor Moran is a Chartered Chemical Engineer with over twenty years’ experience in process design, commissioning and troubleshooting and is regarded as the ‘voice of chemical engineering’. He started his career with international process engineering contractors and worked worldwide on water treatment projects before setting up his own consultancy in 1996, specializing in process and hydraulic design, commissioning and troubleshooting of industrial effluent and water treatment plants.
Whilst Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham, he co-ordinated the design teaching program for chemical engineering students. Professor Moran’s university work focused on increasing industrial relevance in teaching, with a particular emphasis on process design, safety and employability.
Sean’s latest books are available to order on the Elsevier Store. Use discount code STC215 at checkout and save up to 30% on your very own copy!
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