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Top 10 Chemical Engineering Marvels

Graphene – Efficient Conductor which is 200 times Stronger than Steel

Graphene – Efficient Conductor which is 200 times Stronger than SteelGraphene became the apple of the eye of Chemical Engineers ever since it attracted Nobel Prize in 2010. 200 times stronger than steel, Graphene is a better electrical and thermal conductor than copper. A single atom thick layer of carbon which is nearly transparent, the surface area of Graphene is 2,500 m² per gram. Applications for this wonder material are still under research.

It is believed that it can replace silicon for next generation of computer chips and bring about a revolution in the fields of energy harvesting and building new-age sensors. Other fields in which graphene can be used are filtration, building photovoltaics, biological engineering, electronics and building lightweight or strong composite materials. Graphene is also used as a material for 3D printing, display materials and packaging and thermal management applications.

The commercial production of Graphene sheets in a cost-effective manner has still not been achieved but Graphene NanoPlatelets (GNP) is being seen as a potential answer to industrial problems in short-term. Many Graphene variants with different performance levels and varied cost targets have also come up to address different target markets.

Material engineers also realized that plasma functionalisation of Graphene to allow its homogenous dispersion and help in realizing its full potential.

Coloured Carbon Fibres for Luxury Cars

Coloured Carbon Fibres for Luxury CarsCarbon fibres have always been black. If you want them in any colour, you will have to paint it over the surface. Painting the carbon fibres add weight to them and affects their performance and cost adversely. In an aircraft, the additional weight of paint (on carbon fibre) can overreach 500 kg. Hence, motor racing experts from Prodrive in the UK have come up with carbon fibres (which are actually composite materials) in deep-lustre colours and glass-like finish.

This technique ensures that the carbon fibres retain their original durability and give a special to luxury products and exclusive custom-made vehicles. The wonderful thing is that these colour composites are not only highly consistent in their colour and finish but are also UV stable and chip resistant.

Right now, the use of these colourful carbon fibres is restricted to high-end sports car and other high-value sectors such as marine and aviation.

3D Printing for Organ Transplant

3D Printing for Organ TransplantShortage of organ donors is felt acutely by the medical world. In the last decade alone, number of patients who need organ transplants has doubled but due to shortage of organs, nothing much can be done for them. Chemical engineers have stepped in to try and save the day for such patients in the near future. Researches on biomaterials and advances in 3D printing technology have already enabled small-scale cell and tissue regeneration. Now the target is to 3D print organs, bone, cartilage and muscle which should be ready for testing in humans in about five years’ time.

Chinese scientists claimed that they have been able to print working kidneys using this technique but they survived only for four months. Research is on the overcome such limitations. The Wake Institute in the US printed a piece of bone that has been successfully implanted.

Larger tissues and organs contain billions of cells that need to be reproduced. There is also the problem of supplying them with oxygen to keep them alive until they are integrated with the body. Research is being conducted to print channels and nutrients as well as blood vessels in the structure. Biomaterials are also being developed to help the cells of the structure grow and develop.

More sophisticated 3D printers are also being made that would scan a patient’s wound and then, apply cells directly to it to repair and rebuild it.

Carbon Fibre Wings for Aerospace Industry

Carbon Fibre Wings for Aerospace IndustryWeight is everything for the airliners. Heavy planes consume more fuel, making air travel more expensive for us. To improve the aerodynamics performance of new aircrafts, keeping them light and increasing their fuel efficiency, engineers are now opting for lightweight carbon fibre composites instead of aluminium to make airframes.

These carbon fibre composites are lighter and stronger. Brainchild of chemical engineers, they are woven mats of carbon embedded in plastic. They also offer good surface finish to optimize aerodynamic performance.

Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350 are some of the planes using these carbon fibre matrices. Unlike traditional metals, carbon fibre gives more freedom to designers and also reduces engine noise. A350 has carbon fibre wings with nearly vertical wing tips to improve its efficiency.

Using composites will also allow the aircraft manufacturers to use fewer components to make planes and hence cut down time and money spent in manufacturing them. Each kilogram of less weight in the aircraft amounts to about $1 million of cost savings over the lifetime of an aircraft.

Nanocoating Technique to Cut Down Costs for Aerospace Industry

Nanocoating Technique to Cut Down Costs for Aerospace IndustryCommercial aviation is expensive and hence, chemical engineers have been working on new technologies, process and materials to bring down its costs. Moreover, aircraft manufacturers are also under pressure to reduce their environmental impact. Using 50% carbon fibre in the primary structure and titanium coatings within engines have become popular with aircraft industry but also pose challenges.

Titanium is lightweight, corrosion-resistant and strong but requires more frequent maintenance as it has low hardness level and poor coefficient of friction. Adhesion and galling is the problem with titanium coatings. For load loading parts, Physical Vapour Deposition (PVD) of titanium nitride or chromium nitride can add lubricity and hardness but in heavy loading parts such as undercarriage bearings, duplex coating is the only solution.

Researchers at University West in Sweden have been using nano particle based ceramic powder for turbine engine coatings as a heat-insulating later. These ceramic particles are melt at a heat of 7,000 to 8,000 degree Centigrade and then, sprayed directly onto metal surfaces using a plasma stream to make a layer which is about ½ mm thick. This nano coating technique triples the service life of turbine engine and improves its fuel consumption too.

The surface coating technology has been designed to make ceramic layers more flexible and easy to monitor and enable them to bear great temperature changes.

Nylacast Polymers to Replace Metals

Nylacast Polymers to Replace MetalsNylacast has engineered a range of polymers to replace metals for industrial applications. These polymers need less maintenance than traditional metal components such as steel, cast iron, bronze and ceramics. Moreover, they do not get oxidized easily and exhibit excellent corrosion, chemical and wear-and-tear resistance properties. Many of them can also be used in salt water opening up more opportunities for marine industry applications.

 Nylacast polymers have high impact strength, extremely low co-efficient of friction, self-lubricating properties and weight 1/7th of the weight of steel. They also dampen noise. Hence, they are useful in several industries such as Automotive, Construction, Food & Beverage, Pharmaceutical, Offshore, and Oil & Gas industries.

Ceramic Body Armours

Ceramic Body ArmoursThe British research team found that ceramics could provide lighter and more effective body armour for soldiers. These ceramics are not the traditional hard, light and brittle ceramics used in making mugs, plates and toilet seats but the specialized versions which are known as engineering or technical ceramics.

The engineered ceramics are extremely hard compared to metals with the hardness level falling just below the diamond. Hence, when a metal bullet strikes the ceramic armour (with ceramic inserted into layers of Kevlar), the armour gets cracked and ceramic turns into powder – absorbing the shock of the bullet. Once it turns into smaller fragments, it still remains effective as the hard powder wears away the penetrating bullet.

Ceramic armous weigh half of the steel armour and is thus quite useful in a battlefield.

Machine to turn Water into Gasoline

Machine to turn Water into GasolineJust as Jesus Christ turned water into wine, German chemical engineers are about to perfect an alchemy technique to turn water into gasoline. This ‘power-to-liquid’ rig can synthesize gases extracted from water and carbon dioxide into liquid hydrocarbon fuels that are usually petroleum-based.

Nils Aldag, Chief Financial Officer and co-founder of Sunfire GmbH based in Dresden, said, “This is going to change the fuel market for cars, planes and even chemical industry.”

The machine is powered electrically and uses a process which was first developed in 1925 by German chemists Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch. Known as Fischer-Tropsch Synthesis, it uses CO2 extracted from water, and Hydrogen gas generated from water vapor and converts it into diesel, jet kerosene or other such liquid fuels by means of electrolysis. The process uses a series of reactors that work at temperatures between 150 and 300 degrees Celsius.

The F-T fuel technology is going to be more expensive than traditional liquid hydrocarbon fuels but they may prove to be quite useful in the long run. Sunfire hopes to refine the technology and use it for commercial purposes by 2016.

Cryopreservation to Keep Cells Alive

Cryopreservation to Keep Cells AliveCryopreservation is a method to preserve cells and even whole tissues by cooling them to sub-zero temperatures. At such low temperature, chemical activity or enzymatic activities gets stalled effectively. To store important specimens, liquid nitrogen (with a boiling point of −196 °C) is used which is said to be the most effective cryoprotectant.

Today, slow programmable freezing (SPF) method is used to freeze biological samples such as freezing oocyctes, embryo, stem cells, skin, blood products and general tissue preservation. In IVF (in-vitro fertilization), 20% of frozen embryos (about 3 to 4 lakh) have resulted in live births till now. In fact, studies indicated that using frozen embryos is more effective than fresh embryos in reducing the risk of stillbirth and premature delivery.

Moly Sulfide for Cleaner Way to Produce Hydrogen

Moly Sulfide for Cleaner Way to Produce HydrogenMolecular hydrogen (H2) is widely used in industry to manufacture fertilizers and refining crude oil to make fuels. Extracting hydrogen from natural gas (read methane (CH4)) is a tedious process and releases carbon into the atmosphere. Experts from Stanford Engineering and Arhus University of Denmark have found a way to use electrolysis to extract hydrogen from water instead – on an industrial scale.

Producing hydrogen from methane costs just about $1 to $2 per gram. The industries of the world consume about 55 billion kg Hydrogen per year. Hence, the need is for greener and cleaner way of producing hydrogen which does not increase the production cost.

Normally, electrolysis is done using Platinum. Jakob Kibsgaard, a post-doctoral researcher and Thomas Jaramillo, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Stanford have modified the atomic arrangement of age-old chemical called ‘molybdenum sulfide’ or ‘moly sulfide’ for the purpose. In 2004, Stanford chemical engineering professor Jens Nørskov had discovered that at the edges of moly sulfide crystals, there are some sulfur atoms are bound to two molybdenum atoms instead of usual three atoms. These double bond molecules are more effecting at forming H2.

Kibsgaard found a way to make moly sulfide with more double-bonded sulfurs at the edge while Jaramillo synthesized nanoclusters from this special form of moly sulfide. Jaramillo deposited these nanoclusters onto graphite sheets to make cheaper electrodes for electrolysis.

With new plant designs and materials, Jaramillo hopes to bring down the cost of factory-scale production of hydrogen to $1.60 to $10.40 per kilogram using this environmental-friendly method.