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Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology


Opening of the Interdisciplinary Materials Processing Laboratory, Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Cambridge, 28 June 2000.

Address given by Dr Howard Chase, Head of Department

I would like to thank Dr Graham Ferris, Executive Vice-President - Europe and Africa, Shell Chemicals Ltd. for performing the formal opening ceremony. It would probably be useful to review the background of this project , the overall development of our infrastructure over the last few years, and how this integrates with the Department's present and future research plans.

The completion of the IMPL brings to a temporary halt an intensive and far-reaching programme over the last 12 years for the refurbishment of the department's research and teaching resources. That programme was set in motion by my two predecessors as Head of Department, Professors John Davidson and John Bridgwater with the full support of the University's Chemical Engineering Syndicate, the Department's "Board of Governors". What you see here today is very much a testament to their foresight and actions.

The original Shell Endowment to the University enabled the construction in the late 1950's of a brand new building that abutted a building built in 1901 running along Pembroke Street that had previously housed part of the University Chemical Laboratories, before their relocation to Lensfield Road in 1958. before As was the custom at the turn of the century, these chemistry laboratories were built with 20 foot high ceilings, which in the absence of fume cupboards allowed odours, toxic fumes and the emissions from unexpected, explosive reactions plenty of space in which to disperse. Such full height accommodation was well suited to the chemical engineering of the 1950s, where the style of research often involved use of pilot or near full-scale unit operations that could readily be housed in generously tall accommodation. Since those early days, much has changed. The Department has expanded enormously [as can evidenced by studying the sequence of departmental photographs displayed in the walk-way that runs parallel to the main lecture theatre]. The Department is now host to 19 members of the academic staff, 8 academic-related staff, 32 assistant staff and approximately 80 research students, supplemented in term-time by over 100 undergraduate students studying chemical engineering. In addition, the style of chemical engineering research has changed; today's experimental breakthroughs are being made as a result of examination of the chemical and physical detail of molecular substances being synthesised, processed and formulated. High tech. analytical equipment is the order of the day and considerations of safety issues and reasonable expense preclude the conduct of large-scale experimentation for other than the simplest systems involving water, air and readily available solids such as sand. Laboratories now need to be suitable for carrying out work with biological agents, intricate materials in clean & temperature controlled environments and the safe handling of hazardous chemicals.

In order to gain much needed additional space within our existing buildings, and as the need for tall experimental areas has much diminished, the principal underlying the Department's refurbishment programme has been based on the installation of mezzanine floors in areas originally fitted with high ceilings. This has allowed previously under-utilised space to become used for laboratories, offices and the other facilities now expected of a department at the core of multi-disciplinary, leading edge research.

Our programme of mezzanining can be traced back to 1988 when an additional upper floor for our computer suite was installed. This was followed 5 years later by the creation of a new lecture theatre on top of new research laboratories, in half of the space previously occupied by a large Unit operations laboratory. This is where lunch will be served later. The creation of the new lecture theatre enabled the library to be expanded into the area previously occupied by a small lecture room, which in turn created space to construct the Esso Design Project Room and an enlarged seminar/meetings room. In 1995, mezzaning took place in the adjoining Old Metallurgy building to create an extensive electronics workshop below a suite a research student offices. This was followed by redesign of the reception and entrance areas of the building, again with the creation of more office space. An specific grant form Shell enabled a much needed refurbishment of our upstairs communal social area.

More recently, over-height accommodation on the first floor of the original Chemistry building in Pembroke Street has been mezzanined to create a mixture of much needed specialist laboratory and office space. These areas lie immediately above the two floors of the IMPL. A special ear-marked grant of £200,000, again from Shell, enabled us to install removable mezzanine flooring in the remaining half of the Unit operations area referred to previously. The main feature of that exercise was to create an additional upper area in which additional experimentation can be performed, but retains the flexibility of removing flooring panels such that apparatus beyond a certain height can poke through from the lower floor. This has proved to be most effective. Another area in the Old Metallurgy building which previously housed our catalyst laboratory was mezzanined to create space for some of our environmental engineering research and above that is an area specifically equipped for the needs of those research students who undertake computer-based studies for the majority of their research activities.

The old catalysis lab
The new simulation lab

The final refurbishment activity to date and the particular feature on which today's event is concentrated is the Interdisciplinary Materials Processing Laboratory which is housed on two floors that replace a second high-ceilinged Unit Operations Laboratory in the original building. impl This has enabled us to create specialised facilities with a floor area of almost 1000 m2 in which to concentrate our work investigating the processing of a wide range of different materials, as you will hear and see later on today. This ambitious project has been financed in part by a substantial grant of £1.1M from HEFCE as part of their Research Laboratory Refurbishment Programme, and we are pleased to be able to welcome Mr A. Fisher as HEFCE's representative here. However the conditions of such an award required an even matching of funds from the University and this was achieved through the release of a small proportion of the capital constituting the original Shell Endowment bestowed on the University back in 1945. That Endowment from Shell continues to strongly underpin the activities of the Department, and its income now supports two Professorships; the original Shell Professorship currently occupied by John Bridgwater and a new one whose first holder Nigel Slater takes up appointment on 1 July. Both Professors will be speaking later this morning. Recurrent income from the Shell fund also supports 3 University lectureships, our research facilitator, John Dennis, (one of whose tasks is to organise events such as this), together with secretarial and technician posts. There is also a related but separate Shell fund whose income is available to the Head of Department for expenditure on capital projects, such as some of the previous mezzanining operations previously referred to. There is no doubt that without the foresight and generosity of the Shell Group of Companies in making that original Endowment this department would be a mere fraction of its current strength. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that without it, Cambridge might never had had a Chemical Engineering Department at all.


The completion of the construction of the IMPL is being followed by the commissioning and occupation of the new premises. That process is still on-going but a number of materials processing activities are already underway in the new facility as will be described this morning and demonstrated this afternoon. Capital projects of this magnitude are only possible with the support of industry and government agencies. We are most grateful for the support we have received to date. We continue to look to the future, and to further consolidation of our activities on this site. We are well placed here, centrally in Cambridge to be able to interact effectively with the activities of all our cognate subjects, those located in the city (such as biology, chemistry, materials & engineering), together with those at West Cambridge, where our satellite building, purpose-built for Magnetic Resonance Imaging is already housed, and we have started to collaborate with certain medical departments on the New Addenbrookes site. There are still areas of our existing buildings dating from 1897 that are crying out for refurbishment, and plenty of scope for the occupancy of other adjoining areas on the New Museums site that will fall vacant as other departments start to relocate in West Cambridge. Our buildings programme is far from complete.

It is my personal view that chemical engineering needs to play an even more pivotal rôle in the transition from scientific discovery and innovation to exploitation and wealth creation. The products and processes under consideration will be on all scales from the global (involving environmental issues and sustainability) down to the molecular (such as providing actual benefit from recently elucidated genomic information), and involve interactions with almost all other scientific and technological disciplines. The human race will always be reliant on molecules and products formulated to provide molecular effects and I see Chemical Engineering as providing the necessary interface between molecules and mankind on all scales. Chemical Engineers must be armed with a wide range of skills and experiences to facilitate those transitions, and as a member of the underlying academic discipline we must seek to ensure that we are equally well equiped to provide those key factors. I see the construction of the IMPL as being an important part of that quest.

H.A. Chase
Head of Department
27 June 2000

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