Chemical engineering needs a reset


There are good reasons for a reset.

The number of enrolments for women in chemical engineering at the University of Melbourne is near 30 per cent, after being near parity early this century.

Among explanations for the dip are a shortage of girls taking the prerequisite subjects in high school, as well as competition from biomedical (near 50 per cent female) and environmental engineering.

Cutting carbon and salt to help the environment

The Head of School recognises her career focus on membrane technologies applied to energy, food and water, for its positive environmental impact.

This started with gas separation, which remains an interest, and nowadays also involves liquid applications. This research is part of the University’s interdisciplinary Food and Agribusiness research group.

“Seawater desalination and cleaning up wastewater are areas that are key to sustainability and environmental protection, and it gives you a sense of purpose,” Kentish explained.

In recent years, a lot of this work has been in the dairy industry, to reduce the amount of salty wastewater from processing. Wastewater goes into trade waste systems, creating issues with dryland salinity, whilst cheese whey sprayed on fields in the past has disrupted the underlying mineral balance.

Recent work has branched out into recovering the gas used by anaesthetists in hospitals. Anaesthetic gases such as sevoflurane are hundreds of times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

“The patient consumes about 4 per cent, the rest of that gas goes out through the hospital exhaust system and into the atmosphere,” Kentish said.

“So, we’ve been looking at ways of recycling the anaesthetic gas to reduce the environmental impact.”

Innovating with algae

Microalgae has also been fertile ground for sustainability-oriented projects.

In 2017, Kentish was named one of Australia’s Most Innovative Engineers for work using microalgae to sequester carbon dioxide.

The algae can process CO2 whilst making products including biofuels and nutraceuticals. However, contaminated CO2 will kill algae, meaning flue gas or whatever other source must be filtered before it’s passed on to algae. 07:00:00

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