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The Chemical Engineering of Christmas

By: , Posted on: December 28, 2016

So what did chemical engineering ever do for Christmas? The Institution of Chemical Engineers did a blog post on the twelve (chemical engineering) products of Christmas a while back, but some of it was a bit of a stretch. Chemical engineers make the stuff that makes everything – there was no need to take credit for television, or the Pope.

We’d do a better job taking credit for Christmas films. There are a couple of classic Christmas films far more reliant on chemical engineers than a few of the examples the IChemE chose.

Firstly we have “It’s a Wonderful Life”, the heart-warming story of a man in despair at Christmas shown how much his life had been of value to his community. Its director Frank Capra was a chemical engineer, an education which he wrote had “changed his whole viewpoint on life from the viewpoint of an alley rat to the viewpoint of a cultured person”.

Then we have “The Great Escape”, with its central role for Virgil “ The Cooler King” Hilts, who uses his chemical engineering skills to distill moonshine in a WWII prisoner of war camp. Though the celebration he facilitates is US Independence Day, “The Great Escape” is popularly believed in the UK to have been shown on TV every Christmas Day for so long that is as much a fixture as the Queen’s speech.

The Wizard of Oz (“Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again”) is far more commonly shown on the BBC on Christmas day than either of these two, which despite popular belief are well down the list of most shown films over Christmas.

The Wizard of Oz could have done with some chemical engineering input. That snow in the poppy field sequence is pure white asbestos, and the original tinman was hospitalised by lung problems caused by his aluminium powder makeup. The wicked witch’s green makeup was copper based, and could only be removed with acetone, which proved agonising when she was burned in an on-set accident.

But other than the raw material for all that plastic tat, and a couple of quality films, what have chemical engineers ever done for Christmas? Well, there’s my personal favourite aspect – the food and drink. Process engineering is part of all but the most artisanal production processes.

We design and supervise the operation of the plants which make the booze which for many makes Christmas special, (or at least makes our relatives tolerable). We are similarly responsible for plants which make yummy sugar, chocolate, cheese and so on. The more of a bulk product it is, the more likely we are to be involved. Chemical engineers make stuff, not widgets.

The illustration is of key elements of Christmas as designed by a safety conscious engineer, but this is clearly a spoof. No chemical engineer believes in the Father Christmas whose existence is axiomatic to the designer of these schemes. We are simply too numerate to be able to believe. In an article which I think was originally published in New Scientist, the physics of Santa were speculatively explored. It ends as follows:

“353,000 tons (the estimated weight of Santa, sleigh and 214,200 magic flying reindeer) traveling at 650 miles per second creates enormous air resistance — this will heat the reindeer up in the same fashion as spacecraft re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. The lead pair of reindeer will absorb 14.3 QUINTILLION joules of energy. Per second. Each. In short, they will burst into flame almost instantaneously, exposing the reindeer behind them, and create deafening sonic booms in their wake. The entire reindeer team will be vaporized within 4.26 thousandths of a second. Santa, meanwhile, will be subjected to centrifugal forces 17,500.06 times greater than gravity. A 250-pound Santa (which seems ludicrously slim) would be pinned to the back of his sleigh by 4,315,015 pounds of force. In conclusion: If Santa ever DID deliver presents on Christmas Eve, he’s dead now.”

So that’s what we are bringing to the party. Rationality. Merry Xmas One and All!

Read more posts from Sean Moran, The Voice of Chemical Engineering

About the author

sean moranProfessor 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.

Connect with Sean on LinkedIn here, check out his Facebook page here and stay up-to-date on his thoughts, research and practice at his personal blog here.

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