Ángel Irabien: “Chemical Engineering should reconcile the environmental, economic and environmental interests related to production and consumption”

Ángel Irabien, Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Cantabria (Spain), is keynote speaker at the 15th Mediterranean Congress on Chemical Engineering, which will take place from 30 May to 2 June 2023 as part of Expoquimia, the International Chemistry Meeting at Fira de Barcelona. In this interview, he shares his views on the role of chemical engineering in solving the current challenges facing society, the transfer of knowledge between the academic and business worlds, and the essential evaluation of sustainability in decision-making in the chemical sector.





With extensive experience in university and academic management at national and international level, Angel Irabien coordinates  the University of Cantabria’s research unit for the sustainability of production, which brings together more than 30 researchers. He also coordinates other research and knowledge transfer projects that have resulted in more than 300 international publications, three patents and nearly 40 doctoral theses. He is  president and founder of the Specialised Group in Chemical Engineering of the Spanish Royal Society of Chemistry (RSEQ) and has received numerous awards such as the 2012 CEPSA research award for Innovation in Chemical Engineering, the 2019 Award of the Year and the 2021 gold medal from the Spanish Association of Chemists and Chemical Engineers (ANQUE), among others. He was also Director General of Universities, Research and Transfer (2019-2020) and Director of Environment (2003 – 2005) of the Government of Cantabria.

As a scientist, professor and manager, what do you think the role of chemical engineering in today’s society should be?

Chemical Engineering in the 21st century has embraced the Sustainable Development Goals to optimally incorporate them into the transformations of matter and energy that are carried out, in order to meet society’s demands for products and services within a globalised framework with the different supply chains in mind. Therefore, currently, in my opinion, the main role of Chemical Engineering should be to attempt to use knowledge and innovation to reconcile the environmental, economic and social interests related to production (processes) and consumption (products).

Do you think society is aware of the importance of chemical engineering?

Chemical Engineering has certain scientific-technical foundations that aren’t intuitive, as a result of which society, in general terms, is aware of only partial data that may lead to exaggerated assessments of the discipline based on the perception of the risk associated with chemical products and the advances brought about by medicines in terms of life expectancy at birth and the eradication of diseases.

But, generally speaking, there’s no awareness that, in order to address the major challenges facing human development in the 21st century, such as the nexus that links use of water and energy and food demand, the contribution of this discipline is essential in optimising the flows of natural resources in production and services.

What can be done to attract young people to this discipline?

It’s possible to attract interest in this discipline in practically all the social sectors by means of thorough, accurate and accessible information formulated in a language and with means tailored to each person or group.

The dissemination of specific examples of applying this discipline to numerous fields and moving towards overcoming the main challenges facing society and our daily life in the 21st century is a very direct way of generating attraction and interest.

Examples such as the one created in the field of Gastronomic Chemical Engineering by our colleague Claudi Mans attract interest in this discipline among sectors that are generally far removed from it, but the same could be said of the role of Chemical Engineering in water treatment and purification and the development of a vaccine to stop the progress of COVID-19.

And the company? Is there a big gap between the theoretical world and that of the company?

I think the term “theoretical world” in the question refers to the academic world, so the answer should be focused on the efforts that are currently being made in the two environments (company and academia) to promote knowledge transfer activities involving these sectors.

Initiatives such as academic recognition of transfers (six-year transfer periods) and access to new collaborative programmes seeking public-private partnerships, fundamentally implemented by the European Union through the European Institute of Innovation and Technology and the CDTI in Spain and numerous calls for competitive funding for innovation, have significantly reduced the historical divide between academia and the company.

The generation of new business structures such as spin-offs and start-ups capable of speeding up the rate at which knowledge can be transferred to the market also help to establish connections between the creation of new knowledge (academia/entrepreneurship) and related innovation (company/innovation).

In this regard, what role can events such as the Mediterranean Congress of Chemical Engineering play?

As you indicated in the previous question, knowledge transfer, cooperation in innovation and the creation of networks of common interests involving companies and the academic world in the field of Chemical Engineering will lead to progress in the search for the solutions required by the major challenges facing 21st-century society.

The Science-Technology-Innovation connection is becoming increasingly urgent if we’re to achieve the goals of the Green New Deal for Europe, which, in our area, can be materialised in a shift towards a decarbonised model for energy and industry with the aid of digitisation, a circular economy in the use of materials and progress towards a more socially and economically inclusive society.

The 15th Mediterranean Congress of Chemical Engineering remains one of the main events for the academia/company connection in the field of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering due to its direct relationship with Expoquimia, the most important fair in the industry held in Spain, and therefore it’s a fundamental element for the development and evolution of Chemical Engineering, knowledge transfer and innovation in the chemical industry.

Finally, can you tell us a little about your keynote at this year’s congress?

The leynote that’s been scheduled is titled “Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment in Chemical Engineering”. It will outline the basics, the methodology, the new tools and some examples of how an assessment of sustainability can be introduced into decision-making in Chemical Engineering.

Evaluating decisions in Chemical Engineering ranging from the origin of the resources to the final destination of the products from an environmental, economic and social standpoint can lead to a holistic vision that facilitates the introduction of decarbonisation, the circular economy and digitisation as strategic components of the European and Spanish chemical industry in the 21st century.

Finally, I’d like to thank the organisers of the Congress for the opportunity it will give me to publicise the Life Cycle Analysis, one of the fundamental instruments which, in my opinion, will enable us to move towards an increasingly sustainable chemical and process industry within a globalised and competitive context.

Barcelona, March 2023

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