Stamping his mark, striving for change

John Bridgwater, head of chemical engineering at Cambridge University, took the presidential reins at the IChemE this year

By Chris Webb

In 1980, John Bridgwater dared to suggest the IChemE develop its own policy on improving the environment – an idea greeted with suspicion at first.

How things have changed. And Bridgewater is still stirring the waters.

Visionary or heretic? It depends whether you regard Professor John Bridgwater’s struggle for change in the chemical engineering profession, which he represents as president of the IChemE, as an opportunity or an insidious threat.

Bridgwater was already creating waves as early as 1980 when with what must have appeared a preposterous view at the time he suggested the Institution develop an independent position on the environment.

Needless to say, such heresy ignited a lively debate. Remember, this was long before the greening’ of Mrs Thatcher. Moreover, it was a time when any suggestion that industry should actually seize the environmental initiative would have brought roars of derision from many quarters.

John Bridgwater, who also heads the department of chemical engineering in that most hallowed of institutions, Cambridge University, has never shied from controversy (though he would probably prefer making things happen’).

Since taking the reins at the IChemE earlier in this, its jubilee year, marking both 75 years since its formation and 40 since it was granted a Royal Charter, Bridgwater has shown no signs of running out of ideas, and some would say grandiose ones, at that.

If only a fraction of them come to fruition, they will profoundly affect process control and the many associated disciplines in our industry for the better.

As he unhesitatingly points out, the role of the chemical engineer is all encompassing. From design of the process through to operation and maintenance of the final plant.

No wonder a recent survey of salaries shows chemical engineers are the highest paid, earning a median salary of 36,500, much more than their counterparts in electrical and mechanical engineering.

Simultaneously energetic and urbane, Bridgwater nevertheless acknowledges a myopic failure by chemical engineering to see the real opportunities arising from advances in our own discipline’ and an unwilling(ness) to engage effectively with government and the community.’

He hopes the goals set out in a recent London Communique, whose 18 signatories world-wide pledged to: use our skills to improve the quality of life; foster employment; advance economic and social development; and protect the environment,’ will see the light of day.

Back in 1980, says Bridgwater, his suggestions on the environment were regarded by one respondent as not a runner.’ Since then, as we all know, there has been much soul searching by industry as a whole.

What a change we have seen,’ he observes. More than ever a diehard defender of the environment, Bridgwater uses the issue to stress a point close to his heart. My point is this: do we just note the key challenge and quietly get on with our everyday jobs or do we struggle to make things happen?’

Instrumentation and control have played a major role in improving safety and environmental performance, he says. Much improved instrumentation, and IT, have revolutionised design and operation.

Vision, and the need for the profession to embrace it, keep cropping up in the conversation. History is littered with comments of those of limited vision. One is from Popular Mechanics in 1949. The author was discussing the relentless march of science and offered computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons. Another was Bill Gates of Microsoft in 1981 when he said 640K (of memory) ought to be enough for anybody.’

When you look at the broad array of industries where chemical engineering plays a significant part, it’s clear why Bridgwater sees process control, etc., as making a major contribution to the advancement of his profession. And, conversely, why our industry should have good reason to be enthusiastic in that role. The UK chemical industry alone generates a surplus of 4 billion a year to the balance of payments.

The UK is a major centre for contracting, designing and specifying for the world’s process industry. If those aren’t reasons enough to continue to build on the close relationship between process control and instrumentation, and the process industries represented by chemical engineers themselves, then what else could be?