June 2018

Columns

Editorial Comment: What is the future role of the process engineer?

During the American Institute of Chemical Engineers’ (AIChE’s) Spring Meeting, held in Orlando, Florida in April, I was honored to sit on a panel discussion with Paul Durand from ExxonMobil and Sanjeev Kapur from Apex PetroConsultants.

Nichols, Lee, Hydrocarbon Processing Staff

During the American Institute of Chemical Engineers’ (AIChE’s) Spring Meeting, held in Orlando, Florida in April, I was honored to sit on a panel discussion with Paul Durand from ExxonMobil and Sanjeev Kapur from Apex PetroConsultants. The panel discussion, which was part of AIChE’s Fuels and Petrochemicals division, focused on how US shale gas production is changing the energy landscape in North America. Topics discussed during this 1.5-hr session included capital expenditures, downstream processing capacity additions, pipeline bottlenecks and the growth of additional takeaway capacity, supply and demand factors, and increases in US crude, fuels and petrochemical exports. 

As the conference is centered around chemical engineers in the processing industries, a question was asked regarding what role chemical engineers will play in the future. The simple answer is: a significant one. The world is witnessing a substantial boost in the construction of additional petrochemical capacity. Regions such as Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and the US will play a significant role in designing, engineering and constructing facilities to supply products for everyday life. In fact, the International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts that out of the 6 MMbpd–7 MMbpd of global oil consumption growth projected by 2023, approximately 25% (1.7 MMbpd) will come from demand for petrochemical feedstocks. This forecast is in line with the boost in announced projects and those under construction. 

According to Hydrocarbon Processing’s Construction Boxscore Database, more than 250 new petrochemical projects have been announced since 2015. These projects account for more than $100 B in new petrochemical capacity investments in the past 3 yr. In total, the Boxscore Database is tracking more than 450 active petrochemical projects around the world. Approximately 75% of total active petrochemical projects are located in Asia-Pacific (37%), the Middle East (15%), and the US (24%). 

As more citizens move into the middle class in developing economies, the increase in their disposable income has and will continue to boost demand for products made with petrochemicals. This trend is evident in developing nations in Asia.

Engineers are creating and optimizing these technologies, as well as engineering, testing and providing equipment and services to increase production capacity, energy efficiency, safety and reliability. They are doing this while also developing systems to decrease emissions and carbon footprint, and to operate cleanly and safely. 

In short, chemical engineers—as well as engineers throughout the hydrocarbon processing industry—are at the forefront in creating the products to advance modern living for billions of people around the world. With the incredible amount of new chemical capacity that has been announced globally, the petrochemical industry needs many more innovative engineers. 

For an engineer just starting in the industry, my advice is to step back and look at the bigger picture. We sometimes lose sight of how our work roles impact not only ourselves, but the world as a whole. You may think that the facility you are designing or building is just another project to create a fuel or some type of chemical derivative. The products made at that facility may be instrumental in creating equipment that saves someone’s life, technology to connect people around the world, building supplies for a family’s first home, packaging materials to keep food fresh for longer, or tires to get people to work so they can provide a living for their families. These facilities are instrumental in raising the living standard of billions of people, and an engineer is the most crucial aspect in that endeavor. HP

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