SOUE News Issue 3

How Chemical Engineering Came to Oxford

Colin Snowdon

Chemical engineering came late to Oxford. John Bridgwater, who lectured in the Department in the 1970s, and who is just this year retiring as Shell Professor of Chemical Engineering at Cambridge, led an earlier attempt to introduce it as a mainstream option but this failed from a combination of circumstances. Although Oxford had taught and researched engineering science for nearly 100 years, and had the largest chemistry school in the country, the lack of a chemical engineering course remained a notable omission, denying a lot of talent the opportunity to enter the profession.

The champions of the second and successful initiative were Mike Brady, the then Head of Department, and Peter Whalley within the Department of Engineering Science, Rob Margetts and Peter Davidson of ICI, and John Collins of Shell UK. The industrial support included seconding Richard Darton from Shell (August 1991) and myself from ICI (January 1992), but equally important was the support and encouragement from the rest of the department. This required some not inconsiderable forgoing of self-interest. Because there would be no overall increase in undergraduate numbers, civil, mechanical, electrical, and information engineering had, in effect, to give up lectureships to chemical engineering.

We first had to define what was required to offer a four-year course accreditable by the Institution of Chemical Engineers. Fortunately, this was much simpler than setting up a stand-alone course as so much of what is conventionally taught within chemical engineering - mathematics, fluid mechanics, basic thermodynamics, computing, control, etc., was already in the course. The third year lectures therefore needed to cover the quintessential aspects of chemical engineering - chemical thermodynamics, mass transfer, reaction kinetics and reactor design, and the fundamentals of process design. And the fourth year teaching, in addition to covering advanced aspects of these subjects, introduced specific topics which built upon the research strengths of the departmental staff, e.g. fluidisation, two-phase flow, heat transfer, and membrane separation.

In practice, our first task was to prepare two coursework modules for delivery in Trinity Term 1992. A lot of effort went into these as they were the 'shop window' for chemical engineering, and in the Oxford system that enables students to vote with their feet, we had to portray chemical engineering as an attractive option. I remember that in the early years, there was a day trip by a rather uncomfortable minibus to Billingham to see the only methanol plant in the UK, but later on ICI used to put us up for a night! Other companies deserving thanks for hosting 3YP visits to their sites over the years are BP, BOC, and Johnson Matthey.

Having the design project in the third year caused both us and IChemE a problem! Us because we had to help students get started on their projects in parallel with, rather than after, receiving lectures; and IChemE because they felt (not unreasonably) that the design project is best done in the fourth year, enabling the students to apply more of their degree course knowledge. In the medium term, the latter problem was overcome by requiring students seeking IChemE accreditation to augment their design project in the fourth year, though only the truly dedicated students volunteered for this extra work! Latterly, however, with students' accreditation being assessed on learning outcomes from the whole course - including the substantial fourth year research project - revisiting the design project is no longer a requirement. From my perspective, I saw the 3YP as an ideal vehicle for teaching the principles of chemical engineering. Over the years, the project has covered topics as diverse as oil and gas extraction from under the Parks, air separation, pure terephthalic acid, municipal hydrogen plants, and bioalcohol.

In parallel with developing the lectures, we needed to set up and equip a teaching laboratory. A chance visit by a former colleague led to ICI sending us three technicians from Wilton for several weeks to construct three fluid mechanics and distillation experiments, and when Shell heard of this and that ICI had paid for these rigs, they defrayed the cost of three further experiments we had bought in, and sent us one of their experienced technicians to commission and test-run all the experiments! Other industrial sponsors we would like to acknowledge were BP, Albright & Wilson, and Esso.

So, looking back, what has been achieved so far? The first third year course ran in 1992/93 and our first students graduated in 1994. Zhanfeng Cui joined as a lecturer from Edinburgh in 1994 and was appointed as the first Donald Pollock professor of chemical engineering in 2000, and Richard Darton has recently been appointed Head of Department. The medium term future of chemical engineering is in good hands. A great strength of chemical engineering within the department is the overlap with other disciplines; for example, Brian Bellhouse, Gillian Sills, David Kenning, Richard Stone, and Chris Knowles have all been members of the chemical engineering subject panel because their research interests fell within a broad definition of chemical engineering. Although still modest, undergraduate numbers are building up and some 15 to 20 students per year are completing the full complement of courses required for IChemE accreditation, with another 25 or so taking the third year course, thereby acquiring a good appreciation of chemical engineering principles and the systems approach so justly valued by the profession. In recent years, we have had three Salters' scholars. A realistic target is to have 20% of the 120 per year engineering science graduates as accredited chemical engineers.

On the research front, there are currently 20 research students and six post-docs. Research interests mainly focus on biochemical engineering, environmental technology, and sustainability. Professor Cui's interests include tissue engineering, membrane bioreactors, and cryopreservation of engineered tissue and cells. Under Professor Knowles, the Oxford centre for environmental biotechnology (OCEB) hosts a Faraday partnership for innovative soil remediation. Robert Field, who joined the Department in 2001, researches enhanced membrane mass transfer. Thus the emphasis is on the application of chemical engineering principles within other disciplines.

On a personal note, I enjoyed my time in the department immensely - and continue to do so on the half day per week I come in to help with the third year design project. I honestly can't think of a better way to spend the last 10 years of my career. I have been continually impressed with the quality of the students (well, most of them!), and it is always a pleasure to bump into them again, for example Paris Golden in Sydney, and Andrew May on a flight to Chicago. It's a small world!

People often ask me how big a change it was to move from industry to academe. One of the first differences I noted was that whereas in industry it is very easy to start a project, it is very difficult to stop it; in academe it is extraordinarily difficult to reach the consensus necessary to start a project (that lovely expression 'herding cats' springs to mind), but it is frequently very easy to torpedo a project simply by withholding help. Academic freedom is a two-edged sword! Quite rightly, Peter, Richard, and I felt we were on probation for the first year, but the rest of the department gave us the support and encouragement we needed, and I hope we and our successors justified that support.

Sadly, Peter Whalley died in 2000, but he had the satisfaction of seeing a project in which he was instrumental being assured of success. Chemical engineering has landed amongst the dreaming spires.

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