September 2023

27 26 AI - A Catalyst For Chemical Engineering From designing blueprints for expansive chemical factories to harnessing the power of molecules, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is helping chemistry research evolve at an unprecedented pace. We spoke to Sam Andersson who recently explored the intersection of AI and Chemical Engineering in his master’s project for Chemical Engineering at Imperial College London. Q: What’s Chemistry v.s. Chemical Engineering? A chemist primarily focuses on studying the composition, properties, and reactions of substances at a molecular level to expand scientific knowledge. In contrast, a chemical engineer applies principles of chemistry and engineering to design and optimize processes for large-scale production, ensuring efficiency, profitability, and safety. Basically, a chemist figures out how to make a chemical in the lab, and a chemical engineer figures out how to make it at scale, reliably and economically. Q: How much chemistry is in chemical engineering? Surprisingly, not as much as you might think. Chemical engineering is like a fusion of physics, optimization, and problem-solving. It involves surprisingly little chemistry, given that the word chemistry is in the name! Q: How did you come to do this research project? As part of the integrated master’s degree, students must complete a final-year research project. We teamed up to research how AI could be used to streamline the intricate process of flow sheet synthesis, a central task in chemical engineering. Q: How can AI be of use in chemical engineering? I just want to be perfectly clear here that I'm not an AI researcher and I'm not yet a chemical engineer. I have a master’s in chemical engineering, but you need experience to say you are a chemical engineer. However, to answer your question, chemistry could be described as a graph; a molecule can be seen as a network. AI can make predictions regarding graphs and networks. It is a great way of predicting the complex properties of a molecule network. Cartoon by Avish Vijayaraghavan - PhD Candidate in AI for Healthcare