Dealing With an Ever-More-Crowded Environment

Chemical engineering has helped to alleviate many of the stresses associated with living on a crowded planet — from mitigating consumer and industrial wastes to easing some of the discomforts of our fast-paced urban, home and work environments. Chemical engineers are finding ways to purify and deliver the world’s water supply, provide safer fertilizers, and raise product standards to protect increasing populations. And, through green manufacturing technologies — such as bioremediation of contaminants, chemical scrubbing, and reducing waste in the production of products like ibuprofen — chemical engineers give us a way to better cope with the headaches of everyday life, without creating headaches for the natural world.

1918 — FLIT, the first petroleum-based household insecticide, is marketed. Its advertising art was created by Theodor Seuss Geisel (later known as Dr. Seuss). (Standard Oil of New Jersey)

1969 — Hollow-fiber reverse-osmosis membranes are used to treat brackish water, providing greater capacities than similarly sized spiral-wound membranes. (E. I. DuPont)

1983 — Polybenzimidazole (PBI) fibers are introduced as a substitute for asbestos, exposure to which can lead to lung cancer. (Celanese)

1989 — Slow-release fertilizer for bio-remediation of oil-contaminated land and shores is developed. (Exxon Research and Engineering Co.)

1991 — Anaerobic bioreactors capable of high-rate clean-up of wastewater generated in the making of purified terephthalic acid are developed. (Amoco Chemical)

1993 — Ibuprofen is manufactured using anhydrous hydrofluoric acid as both a catalyst and a solvent, resulting in the conversion or complete recovery of starting materials. This eliminated the disposal of large quantities of unrecoverable original aluminum chloride (AlCl3) catalyst. (BASF; Celanese)

1998 — Distillation-based method is developed for recovering unstable tetrahydrofuran (THF) solvent used in paints and paint removers. (Mitsubishi Chemical)

2001 — Membrane-based chemisorption process permits ammonia recovery from anaerobic digested wastes; allowed for a 99.9+% recovery of waste stream ammonia at Staten Island, NY, location. The process has since been improved using proprietary Controlled Air Separation Technology (CAST) followed by ion exchange. (Foster Wheeler; Civil Engineering Research Foundation)

2002 — Dimethyl terephthalate (DMT) equal in purity to that made from petroleum is made from recycled polyethylene terephtalate (PET) bottles and converted to high-grade terephthalic acid (TPA) for use in making new bottles. (Teijin Limited)

2006 — Self-assembled monolayers on mesoporous supports (SAMMS) are used to selectively remove metal contaminants from coal-fired power plant waste streams. This was the first technology to effectively reduce groundwater mercury to meet 2-ppb potable water standards. (Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)