What would happen to innovation in chemical technology if we had a more intimate comingling of chemistry and the engineering sciences?  What effect would there be on the stream of chemists graduating into the world if more schools had a chemical engineer on the chemistry faculty? Could a single engineer on the faculty actually make a difference in altering the direction of the boat a few degrees?

Why is such a change desirable? One way to change the trend of deindustrialization and economic repositioning of manufacturing out of North America is to stimulate innovation in the industrial sciences. To do this we can rely on business leaders individually to formulate strategic plans to upgrade plants and processes by way of step changes in technology. But for business leaders, the calculation for such a change must also take into account the alternative of moving production to another country. Many times it is easier and faster to move production to China rather than taking a gamble on the invention of better technology. A large amount of pharmaceutical manufacturing has been shifted to China, Mexico, and India for this very reason.

To rely on business leaders (top down) to ramp up innovation really means that one is relying on the market. While letting the marketplace drive the economics and distribution of manufacturing has a certain appeal to purists, the global marketplace is highly distorted by government and taxation. Letting “pure” market forces govern innovation as the sole driver is to bet all of your money on a horse that limps.  Why not find ways to stimulate innovation with an improved stream of chemical innovators and a renewed urgency?

Universities do this all of the time. But it is my sense that other disciplines perhaps do this better. It is all too easy for we chemists to invent a reaction or composition, publish it, and then move on to the next outcropping of opportunity. We do this thinking that surely somebody will pick up the ball and run it to the end zone of commerce.

But for any given paper published in SynLett or JOC or ______, the likelihood of commercialization is low. It is not automatically the role of academic science to drive its work towards commercialization. That has been the role of engineering. 

What has been lacking is more significant early overlap of the two disciplines. For a chemist to truly be a part of bringing a transformation to the manufacturing scale, the chemist has to begin thinking about how to prepare the chemistry for the big pots and pans. This is what the art of scale-up is about. And in scale-up, the practice of chemistry has to overlap with the practice of engineering.

Industry already provides for itself in this way by training chemists to do scale-up work. This kind of work has always been beyond the scope of academic training.  But what if there were a course of study wherein chemistry faculty and students could more thoroughly address the problems of chemical manufacture? What if engineering concepts would be allowed to creep into the training of chemists?

Chemistry faculty would begin writing grants for process oriented research. Schools without engineering departments might start hiring the odd engineer or two in an effort to “modernize” the chemistry department.  Gradually, a department might become known among recruiters and donors for producing a strain of BS, MS, and PhD chemists who are already adapted to process research.

It is important to stress that the goal is not to plop conventional engineering curriculum into the chemical course of study.  That will not work. But what is possible is to build a minor in industrial chemistry applications. This pill will be easier to swallow for the P-chemists because in short order it would be apparent that chemical engineering is heavily loaded with physical chemistry.

I have tried to make a case that one way to make a positive influence in chemical innovation in North America is to begin a grass-roots effort to stimulate the culture of chemistry. I believe that providing an avenue of study that includes early exposure to engineering and process economics will stimulate many more students and faculty to make significant contributions to entrepreneurism and industry.

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