Hand-in-Hand in the "Trading Zone"

Science  14 Mar 2003:
Vol. 299, Issue 5613, pp. 1625
DOI: 10.1126/science.299.5613.1625

Catalysis is a vital process in industrial chemistry: the application of basic chemical knowledge to production processes. That domain has been under recent scrutiny in the United Kingdom by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC, one of six councils that collectively fund much of the basic research in UK universities). This organization has recently published an international review of university research in chemistry in the United Kingdom, titled Chemistry at the Centre.* Six review panel members were from the United States, three from continental Europe, and one from India. Although the panel did not explicitly review research in chemical engineering, the report remarks that “chemistry has relatively little contact with chemical engineering in the UK.”

This view is giving much pause for thought in the UK communities. A lack of communication between those who “invent and understand molecules” and those who “design and optimize the processes that deliver them as materials”—grossly simplified definitions of the two disciplines—is clearly unhelpful for developing new technologies. Consider the design and production of a new plastic. In a test tube, the removal of heat produced in the reactions taking place, and the fact that the product becomes stickier and stickier and more difficult to stir, are often not big problems. In a production plant, these are huge design considerations, and they could often be ameliorated if the chemical route chosen could be rethought. Scale-up from a test tube to a plant should never be a sequential operation where a chemist hands over to an engineer, but a partnership at every stage.

The immediate reaction to the accusation of the panel is “but it's not like that.” I believe that this is genuinely the case in many institutions, including my own. However, we have to admit that it has been true in the past. It is thus worth asking about the history of the undesirable demarcation perceived by the panel.

Since the early 1970s in the United Kingdom, chemical engineering has seen itself predominantly as a discipline under the umbrella of engineering practice. It has therefore tended to concentrate at the undergraduate level on the qualifications required for accreditation as a professional engineer. This has meant a close association with the process industries, and the United Kingdom has enjoyed a very high reputation in design, optimization, and control of chemical processes. Physical processes such as particle technology have also been important.

The downside has been at least a partial neglect of the essential molecular basis of the subject. When I joined Imperial College in the mid-1970s, the two chemical disciplines clearly viewed each other with some suspicion. Fortunately, the chemical engineering department at Imperial explicitly included “chemical technology,” and half of the staff had first degrees in science disciplines (our new recruits still have this diversity of background). We have always looked more like our sister departments in the United States, responding to and developing research into the molecular basis of this engineering discipline. In continental Europe, the picture is varied. Some countries have no identifiable discipline called chemical engineering. In some, the discipline is called production engineering, and in some, notably France, the subject is taught as a much more science-based formation.

In recent years, the leading chemical engineering departments in the United Kingdom have taken a similar approach to ours at Imperial, encouraged by a recent EPSRC initiative to fund projects that bring together chemists and chemical engineers. Today we can point to many joint projects and some nationally funded networks, such as the Institute of Applied Catalysis and the Crystal Faraday Centre for green (that is, clean and environmentally friendly) chemical technology. If these interactions, which are being encouraged to extend and deepen both by institutions and by funders, are not visible to our colleagues outside the United Kingdom, we need to do some shouting from the rooftops—otherwise, a historical perception will continue to have real and undesirable consequences.

The EPSRC review encourages us to do what many already perceive to be vital. Many chemical engineers and chemists are aware that they must work together in truly multidisciplinary teams based on genuine parity of esteem if we are to deliver the revolutions promised by biotechnologies or realize the practical fruits of nanotechnology. We need to be hand-in-hand at the heart of the inter- or multidisciplinary “trading zone” defined by the science historian Peter L. Galison. As part of this joint effort, we must redevelop our undergraduate and postgraduate courses to encourage and provide the basis for these future interactions.

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