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Engineering image

| By Rebekkah Marshall

Last month, the American Chemical Society (ACS) celebrated its 19th annual National Chemistry Week, a community-based program that aims to communicate how chemistry benefits quality of life. The initiative goes hand-in-hand with the American Chemistry Council’s (ACC’s) “essential2” advertising campaign, launched a little more than a year ago to inform law and policy makers about how the chemical industry and its employees are making our lives healthier and safer.

Granted, these initiatives are sponsored by organizations that represent only a small fraction of the chemical engineering profession. We work in a much broader range of chemical process industries that exist far beyond the U.S. border. Nevertheless, these and other campaigns underscore a reality that chemical engineers of many varieties and nationalities must face: Like it or not, image matters.

Stereotypically, engineers are not known for our attention to image. To many of us, in fact, image is frivolous and borders on vanity. The paradox is that without a bright public image, our impact for the greater good is limited. For one thing, chemical engineering innovation depends heavily on investments in R&D; and, these investment allocations, whether from governmental sources or private ones, largely follow public opinion. Meanwhile, the young talent that we hire today will usher in yet another wave of chemical engineering innovation tomorrow. For luring the best and brightest, image has impact.

Admittedly, actual historical events that resulted in human or environmental harm have deposited a layer or two of tarnish on our image. The more catastrophic of these — Bhopal and Seveso ­— will follow our profession for years and years to come. They remind us to design preventively, work safely, communicate clearly and, if all else fails, act responsibly.

Aside from the clear-cut incidents, however, common misconceptions add to our image dilemmas. Last month at the Women in Business Conference presented by the London Business School, Vivienne Cox, BP’s chief executive of gas, power and renewables, illustrated this point in the context of greenhouse-gas generation. “I often meet people who think that transport is the biggest global source of carbon dioxide emissions or CO2. In fact, it’s not.” The reality, Cox says, is that electricity generation produces twice the CO2 emissions of worldwide transport, or 40% of global emissions.

To its credit, BP is not only finessing this state of affairs from the consumer-awareness angle. In addition to its well-known “Beyond Petroleum” campaign, the company has earmarked at least $8 billion over the next ten years for investment in BP Alternative Energy, a low-carbon power business that was formed last year. A key goal of this business unit is the development of hydrogen-power projects that dramatically reduce emissions of CO2 from power generation.

BP has teamed up with GE, announcing plans for two such hydrogen-power projects with carbon capture and sequestration in Peterhead, Scotland and Carson, Calif., both of which will use GE technology. Subject to appropriate regulatory and fiscal regimes being in place, and necessary due diligence, the companies have an ambition to implement 10–15 further projects over the next decade.

BP’s strategy sends a clear message. Not only is improved image good for business, but when handled conscientiously, a flourishing business can do wonders for a lack-luster image.

For judging the effectiveness of today’s image campaigns, perhaps BP’s other tag line says it best. “It’s a start.”