Marc-Olivier Coppens

Ramsay Memorial Professor and Head of Department of Chemical Engineering, University College London




Nature-Inspired Chemical Engineering, a NICE Approach to Sustainability and Innovation

Some of our greatest challenges involve energy, water, the environment, dwindling resources, sustainable manufacturing, and healthy ageing. These global challenges become increasingly urgent. To approach them, chemical engineers are well equipped with the basic tools: balances, systems modeling, thermodynamics, kinetics and transport phenomena. Nevertheless, how these tools are employed in process and product design requires rethinking. Tackling Grand Challenges, such as those framed by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), requires step-changes through transformative approaches and lateral thinking across disciplines, beyond incremental variations on traditional designs.

Nature is replete with well-integrated, “intensified” systems, optimized over the eons, to satisfy stringent constraints for survival by scalable processes with emergent properties. We propose to take nature as a source of inspiration, leveraging fundamental mechanisms underpinning desirable properties (like scalability, resilience or efficiency) and applying these to engineering designs, with suitable adaptations to satisfy the different contexts of technology and nature. We call this Nature-Inspired Chemical Engineering (NICE), and the design and innovation methodology to practice it more broadly: Nature-Inspired Solutions (NIS).

The NIS methodology is thematic, structured around ubiquitous mechanisms in nature, such as: (1) hierarchical transport networks; (2) force balancing; (3) dynamic self-organization; and (4) ecosystems, control and modularity. The NIS methodology is also systematic, recognizing a suitable concept (e.g., fractal scaling within a certain range), then applying it to a design (such as a uniform, scalable fluid distributor) that supports implementation within the context of an application (such as fluidization). Because it is systematic, NIS is versatile, allowing for application of validated principles to new problems (for example, from gas/solid fluidization to fuel cells for energy and environmental technology).

I will give examples of how NICE is applied to the intensification of chemical reactor operation and (heterogeneous, bio- and electro-) catalytic processes, membrane separations, and functional materials for space technology and biomedical applications, from dental materials to cancer immunotherapy. Many of these developments are underpinned by computation-assisted optimization. We hope that NICE, using the NIS methodology, may become a driver for innovation in design, thinking out-of-the-box, and guide solutions to some of our engineering Grand Challenges, a key to sustainability.

Marc-Olivier Coppens is Ramsay Memorial Professor and Head of Department of Chemical Engineering at UCL, since 2012, after professorships at Rensselaer (USA) and TUDelft (Netherlands). He holds chemical engineering degrees (1993; PhD 1996) from Ghent University (Belgium), was visiting scholar at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and postdoctoral fellow at Yale and UC Berkeley. He founded and directs the UCL Centre for Nature Inspired Engineering (CNIE), which was granted EPSRC “Frontier Engineering” (2013) and “Progression” (2019) Awards. He is most recognised for pioneering nature-inspired chemical engineering (NICE): learning from fundamental mechanisms underpinning desirable traits in nature to develop innovative solutions to engineering challenges. He is Fellow of AIChE, IChemE, Corresponding Member of the Saxon Academy of Sciences (Germany), Qiushi Professor at Zhejiang University. He has >150 peer-reviewed publications, and has delivered >50 named lectures, plenaries and keynotes.