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July 13, 2020
UBC MEL SPE Sergio Industry Challenges

Sustainable Process Engineering: Industry Challenges

By Sergio Berretta, Instructor in the MEL in Sustainable Process Engineering program

When I entered the workforce over 25 years ago, most chemical engineering grads were hired by the many large engineering consulting companies or production facilities based right here in Canada. This was my experience: I began working as a chemical engineer for a consulting firm and my position enabled me to work on a wide range of engineering projects and travel to many vibrant industrial areas across Canada, the US and overseas. 

Almost three decades later, the sector looks very different. On my last few trips through North America I saw first-hand that while the petrochemical, chemical and oil and gas industries remain healthy in some parts of the US, it’s very different in Canada. Full industrial areas in Eastern Canada I visited in the 1990s are now much smaller. This is also the case for the chemical and petrochemical industries in Alberta and BC. Not surprisingly, large Canadian engineering consulting companies have experienced the same decline.

What has changed? In many cases, these industrial centres and groups were displaced because they did not adjust fast enough to a quickly changing world.

For example, in the engineering consulting business, with the advent of the Internet and opportunities for online collaborations, it was suddenly possible to break engineering projects into parts and allow each part to be completed wherever the costs were lowest. Today, much of the engineering work that was historically done in Canada has shifted to countries such as India, South Korea and China.

But while we still see remnant clusters of chemical plants in some areas of Canada, we’re also seeing the exciting emergence of clusters of startups working on novel technologies and processes, pushing the envelope of what is known and what is possible. Many of these companies are based in British Columbia – from Carbon Engineering with its innovative carbon capture technology to Ronin8, which is recovering precious metals from electronic waste. There’s a vibrant cluster of activity here, spanning everything from biogas production to fuel cell manufacturing, to the transformation of industrial waste into useful products , and to the development of sophisticated software using data mining and analytics for the optimization of the operations of existing complex industrial plants or the development of new processes.

What unites these companies – and others working within this startup space both in Canada and abroad – is their ingenuity and attention to the development and implementation of core R&D, scale-up and commercialization strategies to bring their novel technologies and processes to market.

The development and implementation of these strategies represents an exciting and fast-growing field for engineers who want to work on complex chemical and biological engineering challenges and apply their creative problem-solving skills.

In fact, I’m convinced that this is where the most exciting opportunities are in the chemical and biological engineering sectors here in Canada and around many other parts of the world. However to excel in this growing fast-paced field, our future engineers will need more than the strong fundamental knowledge of the classic chemical and biological engineering foundations of thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, mass transfer and reactor design. These foundations must be complemented with new skills and knowledge, requiring a shift in education and training.

Working in this growing field requires knowing how to use engineering principles and data to develop and scale up novel chemical and biological technologies, along with a solid understanding of process synthesis, modelling, statistics, big data, machine learning, sustainability and environmental leadership, and entrepreneurship. Environmental stewardship has become essential to the chemical and biological sector, and professionals in this increasingly prominent field need to know how to design sustainable new processes or improve the environmental impact of existing ones   – using renewable resources and safeguarding the environment.

The Master of Engineering Leadership degree in Sustainable Process Engineering is part of the educational shift taking place in engineering at UBC, and the ideal training ground for engineers who want to work at the leading edge of process development, with a focus on sustainability, environmental leadership and entrepreneurship.

This forward-thinking program teaches the required skills through the development of new ventures and business opportunities that students can potentially take with them into the real world once they graduate.

In addition to being an adjunct teaching professor at UBC, Sergio Berretta works as an independent consultant for a number of Canadian clients, with a focus on scaling up and commercializing process technologies. Throughout his career, he has gained knowledge of many different aspects of the chemical and biological engineering sector, including engineering design, R&D, plant operations and technology commercialization, and has served as Vice President and COO of BC Research, a process technology scale-up and commercialization centre.