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A cornucopia of paths for R&D

By Chemical Engineering |


Any time experts invest effort in recommending directions for research and development with relevance for chemical engineering, their work seems worth a close look. Thus, this Editor’s Page has welcomed chances to air such recommendations as: Technology Vision 2020: the U.S. Chemical Industry (January 2001, p. 7) and the U.S. National Academies’ Beyond the Molecular Frontier: Challenges for Chemistry and Chemical Engineering (May 2003, p. 7). Now a similar chance is at hand, namely, a more-detailed look at the R&D goals of the European SusChem initiative.


SusChem was described here two months ago (July, p. 7). As noted then, experts on behalf of numerous major chemical-process companies, aiming to make Europe’s chemical industry more competitive by promoting R&D and innovation, have recommended particular emphasis in three areas: industrial biotechnology, materials technology (nanotechnology in particular) and process design. In fact, their specifics are pertinent for not solely Europe but anywhere that chemical-process R&D is seriously pursued.


In biotechnology, for instance, seven areas are labeled most promising:


  • Novel enzymes and microorganisms

  • Microbial genomics and bioinformatics

  • Metabolic engineering and modeling

  • Biocataylst function and optimization

  • Biocatalytic process design

  • Innovative fermentation science and engineering

  • Innovative downstream processing; such as combining hybrid separation methods, or in-situ product removal during continuous fermentation


For materials technology, the experts suggest five points of departure:


  • Fundamental understanding of structure/property relationships (involving, for instance, growth kinetics, surface grafting, and nanointerfaces)

  • Computational materials science; for instance, new techniques and models for bridging length and time scales

  • Development of analytical techniques, such as ones to characterize single molecules, or to quickly analyze high-throughput streams

  • New production processes for scaleup of laboratory synthesis of improved nano and other materials (including, for instance, developments involving quantum-scale phenomena)

  • Bio-based performance and nanocomposite materials; for example, for more-specific drugs, easier disease diagnostics and wound healing, and better coatings for clothing, upholstery, textiles, windows and buildings


And in reaction and process design, there are seven designated areas:


  • Novel synthetic concepts (like the use of novel building blocks such as CO2, and increased use of benign and easy-to-handle oxidants)

  • Catalytic transformations

  • Biotechnological processing (for instance, combining genetic engineering and analytical high-throughput processes)

  • Process intensification (held as especially promising)

  • In-silico techniques, based on high-performance computing, process systems engineering, chemical sensing and distributed process control

  • Purification and formulation

  • Plant control and supply chain management.


As with any such agenda, the making of recommendations is just the first step. Let us indeed hope that real R&D commitment — and eventual full-scale adoption — of the best of these ideas do follow in due course.

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