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How Chemical Engineers Are Helping Society Move to a Circular Economy

By: , Posted on: March 13, 2017

Thermochemical processes are and will be the most important chemical process affecting our daily lives in the coming decades. They are the key processes that provide us energy and the major base chemicals. These processes are classically applied to fossil feedstocks, such as coal, natural gas and oil, but also on alternative feedstocks such as plastic waste and biomass. It is expected that the energy landscape will change substantially in the coming decades, with a gradual shift towards the use of renewable feedstocks and what is currently being considered waste.

The transition to a circular economy, an industrial system in which products and materials are maintained at their highest value at all times, is needed more than ever. Waste and resource use should be minimized, and resources are to be kept within the economy to be re-used. Chemical kinetic models are extremely powerful and valuable for this purpose. More and more public policy and business decisions are made on the basis of models that account for the chemistry in extreme detail  For example, the Montreal Protocol, which imposed a worldwide ban on certain halocarbons, was based on a fundamental knowledge of the ozone layer problem established by kinetic modeling. In the chemical industry kinetic models are widely applied, e.g. to simulate steam cracking, refining or vinyl chloride production. However, for the majority of technologically important chemical processes, including combustion, pyrolysis, and oxidation of hetero-atomic mixtures, complete detailed kinetic models are not yet available. This is because constructing a reliable model remains very difficult and time consuming. Moreover, these models typically contain thousands of reactions, involving hundreds of intermediates, while only a small fraction of the reaction rate coefficients have been determined experimentally.  It is usually impossible to measure the concentrations of all the kinetically significant chemical species. Numerically solving these large systems of differential equations in a reasonable time also remains a challenge, in particular when these models need to be implemented inComputational Fluid Dynamics codes.

For a limited time only* we are providing free access to Chapter Two of Thermochemical Process Engineering, Mechanistic Understanding of Thermochemical Conversion of Polymers and Lignocellulosic Biomass

*free access until 31st May 2017

In the last century we have rapidly moved to a society that consumes large amounts of disposable plastic products. Although plastic has a wonderful array of properties that have made it ideal for many of these applications, the fact that nature needs 100 or thousands of years to break it down is a huge problem. Pyrolysis is one of the most promising routes to partially recycle plastic waste by going back to the building blocks. However we need to improve chemical understanding of plastic waste conversion for the production of key chemicals (short and long olefins, aromatics, oxygenates) before this becomes a commercially viable technologies. The presence of food and biomass in combination with plastic waste makes it even more challenging.

advances in chemical engineering

To learn more about Thermochemical Process Engineering check out Volume 49 of Advances in Chemical Engineering. The volume provides up-to-date information, comprehensively presenting updates in a systematic fashion that has made the series of great importance to organic chemists, polymer chemists, and many biological scientists since its inception in 1960. Check it out on ScienceDirect here or buy it on the store.

Chemical Engineering

Most of the major scientific challenges of the 21st century — including sustainable energy resources, water quality issues, and process efficiency in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries — revolve around chemical engineering. Elsevier’s broad content in this area examines topics such as bioprocessing, polymer nano-composites, biomass gasification and pyrolysis, computational fluid dynamics, industrial proteins, catalysis, and many others with great significance and applicability to researchers today. Our books, eBooks, and online tools provide foundational information to students, and cutting-edge coverage to advance corporate research and development. Learn more about our Chemical Engineering books here.