Professor Robin Smith talks process integration and the future of chemical engineering
Meet the Department 30th July 2020
Professor Robin Smith is Director of the Centre for Process Integration in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science of the University of Manchester. He is co-founder of two spin-out companies from the university. Before joining the University of Manchester he had extensive industrial experience in process investigation, production, process design and process integration. He has acted extensively as a consultant to industry in process integration projects.
He has published widely in the field of process integration and is author of “Chemical Process Design and Integration”, published by Wiley. This is a standard undergraduate textbook in process design. He is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, a Fellow of the Institution of Chemical Engineers in the UK and a Chartered Engineer. In 1992 he was awarded the Hanson Medal of the Institution of Chemical Engineers for his work on waste minimisation. In 2018 he was awarded the Sargent Medal (pictured above) of the Institution of Chemical Engineers for his sustained contribution to the field of process integration over many years.
Process integration focuses on the design, optimisation, operational optimisation and control of chemical and biochemical processes, relating to processes in the petroleum, petrochemical, chemical, pharmaceutical and food processing industries. The emphasis is on a holistic approach to processes, rather than concentrating on individual operations, or the phenomena occurring in individual operations. Process integration is at the heart of process design.
What projects are you currently working on and what is their benefit to society?
I am currently active in a number of research areas related to energy efficiency in chemical processing and more sustainable ways to provide energy to society as a whole. The chemical industry and society as a whole will gradually switch from fossil energy resources to renewable resources over the coming years. This requires a systematic and holistic approach not just for the end goal of eliminating fossil energy resources, but for an orderly transition to take place that does not create economic disruption.
The research work that I have carried out has fed into a number of courses both at undergraduate and MSc level relating to process design.
What do you see as the biggest future chemical engineering challenge?
The drive towards sustainability in manufacturing requires the application of process integration techniques across all material and energy flows in chemical processing for the goals of resource conservation and reducing environmental impact. Maximising sustainability requires that industrial systems should strive to satisfy human needs in an economically viable, environmentally benign and socially acceptable way. To achieve this objective requires a broader horizon to be adopted for manufacturing then the immediate boundaries of the manufacturing site. Switching raw materials from traditional fossil fuels to renewable biomass sources competes with the provision of food and the supply of water. If biomass is to be exploited for the provision of energy of the manufacturing of chemical products, this needs to be considered within the context of the energy-food-water nexus. Chemical engineering can make a major contribution to solve the problem of sustainable manufacturing in the context of the energy-food-water nexus.
And finally, what advice can you give to prospective chemical engineers?
After a long career in chemical engineering, I can honestly reflect that I have no regrets about choosing chemical engineering as a career. I believe fundamentally that chemical engineers make a core contribution to the good of society. All aspects of modern life and the standard of living that we enjoy are based on chemical products, even though this is not widely appreciated. A degree in chemical engineering can provide a rich variety of opportunities, not just in the production of chemicals, fuels, food products and pharmaceuticals, but in many other aspects of commerce and society.