Monday, 20 May 2013

Chemists own the Future!

“The future belongs to chemistry and chemists” that was the inspiring message given by Dr. Mike Pitts (below, left) of the UK’s Technology Strategy Board (TSB) to a packed house of members and Friends at our meeting on 15 May at the British School of Brussels. Mike outlined the major societal challenges facing our world today and in the near future. He then showed how chemistry has a vital role to play in providing solutions to these issues – but also how the success of these solutions depends on a change of mindset in manufacturing and society in general.

In the near future – say by 2050 - we will need to enable 9.5bn people to live well within the resources of a single planet. This is a significant challenge.

By 2050 we will also have three billion new middle class in the developing world all looking to embrace the ‘western’ consumer lifestyle. In addition we will all be living longer with huge implications for how we manage chronic diseases. As Mike put it: “By 2050 in the UK, on the current model for care of the ageing population, all 18 year olds will have to become care nurses by law!” He also pointed out that the majority of babies born today in the EU will live past 100 and the first person to live to 150 has most probably already been born.

At the same time we tend to take our modern technology for granted. A modern smartphone contains a great range of elements that we have only recently begun to exploit. The amounts are small per application but very widespread in use. There are now more mobile phones on the planet than people and each one contains half the periodic table: around 40 elements.

Chemical solution?
The key to a sustainable future is to base our thinking around resource and energy efficiency. Mike showed how by closing the loop in manufacturing we can minimise waste and maximise reuse and recycling and therefore help provide the goods and services that our growing population need.

This will need a significant mindset change. “Chemists are trained to make ‘white powders and clear liquids’” he pointed out, but consumers don’t really purchase products any more they purchase effects or services. This change in perception can help drive forward the materials cycle to minimise waste.

Most importantly we have a generation growing up now with an inherent understanding of sustainability and a desire to see a more resource efficient world claims Mike. He believes that the process industries will need to engage widely with other disciplines as they realise our importance and the importance of chemistry in general.

Mike was a very entertaining and inspiring speaker and there was a very lively discussion after his presentation. How do we make the products and services that we need truly sustainable? And what is chemistry’s role in ensuring this happens? Questions we all need to ponder deeply.

Mike left us with a great quote from a leading UK designer and sustainability expert that we should all be shouting from the rooftops: “Chemists own the future!”

Sustainability expert
Dr. Mike Pitts is an expert in chemical aspects of sustainability. Before joining the TSB, he was Sustainability Manager with the Chemical Innovation Knowledge Transfer Network (CIKTN) leading the development of CIKTN’s Sustainable Design Guide.

Mike is an organic chemist by training (BSc, University of Loughborough and PhD, University of Exeter) and worked as a postdoctoral associate at the University of Vienna. He is great enthusiast for chemistry and a trustee of the excellent Catalyst Science Discovery Centre in Widnes.

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