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Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology



Process Systems Engineering: Why? How? What?

The PSE group’s identity and mission are summarised by the following brief points:

➢  Why Process Systems Engineering? -> We want to solve problems!

Chemical Engineering, as an engineering science discipline, is called to address a number of modern challenges in a dynamic world.  Issues in healthcare, biological systems, new materials, safety, maintenance, and process intensification, design, control and optimisation are some of these challenges facing modern-day chemical engineers – both in industry as well as in research.

In our group we believe passionately in the capabilities, the applicability, and the value of Chemical Engineering as a discipline at large, and the contribution and impact it has to make in the years to come.  We believe that this contribution will be ever increasing given its strong scientific core and long and versatile reach.

Our group is founded upon the vision to solve the most challenging problems across the board from within Chemical Engineering, and to identify new areas where we can contribute.  Thus we aim to address current challenges and to identify emerging ones.

➢  How do we contribute? -> We visualise the future!

How we do it is via the multitude of tools Process Systems Engineering has to offer using suitable modelling methodologies.  We use our understanding of fundamental first-principles to construct accurate models describing the underlying processes, such as physicochemical and biological phenomena.

How we do it also relies on pushing the envelope of existing solution techniques, and by working at the frontier of what is currently achievable.  In this case our innovation comes at the level of algorithm design, so as to enable solution of models that challenge existing computational methods.

➢  What do we do? -> We deliver solutions for the present and the future

What we do therefore is to deliver back to society solutions for these problems.  We do so by making our ideas publicly available through peer-reviewed journal articles, books, conferences, by delivering such solutions to industry directly, and by participating in national and international collaborations for education and research for the benefit of society at large.

This is who we are and what we do.

More details about Chemical Engineering and Process Systems Engineering are given in the Sections below.

Our current research themes and project areas are given here.

1. Chemical Engineering: an overview

Chemical Engineering emerged as an Engineering discipline which aimed to produce materials in bulk via chemical reactions. The engineering aspect was first considered to arise due to the mechanical engineering equipment involved in production plants. The concept that set Chemical Engineering apart from other disciplines and clarified its individuality and character was that of unit operations. Unit operations are the basic (fundamental) steps in a productive process.

Chemical Engineering went through various phases in acquiring its modern core character. The introduction of Transport Phenomena was fundamental, which explains the influence of transport mechanisms of material and energy on productive processes, and the definition of their rates.

A second broad phase in Chemical Engineering emerged due to two main causes. After the 1940's, Chemical Engineering was well-defined and well-founded as a discipline and profession. After several decades of applications in the chemical industry, around the 1980's-1990's it can be seen that research in the basic domains of chemical reaction engineering and separation processes begins to slow down as there is simply no more scope in researching well-established principles. The focus of the discipline in the same period seems to gravitate towards the design of new products, and of finding new production routes – hence the increasing focus in fundamental chemistry to discover new synthetic routes as well as establish de novo design of new chemical products.

At around the same time biotechnological routes of production start emerging as areas of interest within Chemical Engineering, with the field of Biotechnology in the early 1980's already an emerging, if not an established aspect, within core Chemical Engineering interests and activities. This could be considered the third broad phase within Chemical Engineering.

Biological systems and biochemical reactions therefore are nowadays a core interest within Chemical Engineering, as organic chemistry routes were once the fundamental production routes that led to its foundation. Despite the complexity of how cells operate and their intricate organisation and functioning, they can be still viewed as systems that can be analysed using the fundamental tools of Chemical Engineering, ranging from transport phenomena, fluid mechanics, chemical reaction engineering, to process design and control. In this sense it is important for chemical engineers and university faculties as well to explore such productive systems, as well as other applications tangent to them such as in biomedical systems.

Due to the importance of biotechnology in itself, scientifically and in terms of production capabilities versatility, as well as the prioritisation of technological attributes which are greatly important nowadays: green technologies, sustainability, cyclic economy, etc. Whatever the causes, it should be made clear that biotechnology is an aspect that at least from the fundamental scientific point of view has much to offer to the Chemical Engineering discipline, and equally our discipline has to offer to it by a systematic effort and strategy to integrate and expand on the domain.

2. Process Systems Engineering (PSE): an overview

In the 1960's there was a movement that significantly enhanced Chemical Engineering by systematically integrating mathematical and computational techniques with the explicit aim to understand the behaviour of chemical processes as well as to allow their systematic design via mathematical modelling.

This area is largely termed as Process Systems Engineering (PSE):

Process Systems Engineering (PSE) is an interdisciplinary field, focusing on the design and operation of complex production systems. More specifically, it focuses on the development and application of modelling and computational methods to simulate, design, control and optimise processes. These are studied through the mathematical description of the underlying physicochemical and biochemical phenomena.

Our research group, led and founded in Cambridge University by Dr. V.S. Vassiliadis since 1995, has made several contributions in Chemical Engineering and Biochemical Engineering systems, and in Applied Mathematics and Computational Methods.

Figure 1 describes our group's research strategy in PSE.

Figure 1. PSE research organisation at the PSE Research Group at Cambridge University.