On Creativity

Creativity is one of those supposed ‘21st century skills’ that an awful lot of people are obsessing about these days.  “We need to teach creativity” they cry, without ever saying how we might do such a thing.

I would suggest that you can’t teach creativity per se and, in fact, there is no such thing as a ‘creative person’. You can be creative in areas where you have knowledge and skill but that doesn’t mean you’ll be creative in an area where you know very little or where you have very little talent.

Here I’m going to give examples of what creativity means in chemical engineering. It might be a tiny bit technical but, in a way, that’s the point. What I consider creative might not seem all that creative to you and that’s because our knowledge base is likely to be very different.



Back in the 19th century, Calais-born Dubliner, Aeneas Coffey, invented the Coffey Still.  His invention made it possible to produce essentially pure ethanol in large quantities and, as a consequence, the blended whiskey industry took off, mainly in Scotland. Coffey didn’t dream up the Coffey Still out of nothing: he worked in the Excise Duty section of the Revenue and he was a regular visitor to the large number of distilleries scattered around Ireland at the time. He knew quite a bit about distillation and he would have been aware of the concept of reflux.

Since then, countless devices have been invented by chemical engineers, from reactors to liquid extraction columns to membrane separation modules to gas absorbers. That’s creativity in a chemical engineering context; thinking up new ways of carrying out physical and chemical processes on a large scale.


But it’s not all about inventing new ‘machines’. Engineers also apply existing science (and mathematics) to new situations, situations that only arise in the environment of chemical and biochemical process plants. But in applying science in these situations, you need to be creative because most industrial processes are too complicated to be analysed exactly; you need to make simplifications and approximations, enough to capture the essence of the problem but not so much that you miss out on anything important. It’s a creative process built on a deep knowledge of the underlying science and an ability to express ideas in the language of mathematics.

In many situations, though, chemical engineers find themselves in places where the science is missing. These are places that scientists have ignored mainly because going there won’t provide them with any new insights into how nature works. But the chemical engineer has to visit these places because he or she needs to solve problems. So the engineer who wants to design a bioreactor needs to understand the behaviour of swarms of air bubbles rising through a liquid while passing close to an agitator spinning at high speed.  But that requires a deep knowledge of fluid mechanics and enough creativity to be able to see the wood for the trees.


A particularly creative way of simplifying complex systems is to see a connection between a complex system and a similar but simpler system. And in chemical engineering, the use of analogies is common. So when an engineer wants to describe (mathematically) the flow of fluid through a bed of sand, they make an analogy between flow through a bed of sand and flow in a pipe. This might seem to be stretching it a bit but, in fact, it’s a very useful approach. Likewise if an engineer wants to describe heat transfer in a complex system like a bioreactor, it helps to think of heat flow as something like the flow of electricity and to think in terms of currents and resistors. It’s a very powerful and creative idea but it all depends on knowing something about heat transfer and something about electricity theory. It’s an example of creativity emerging from a broad knowledge base and seeing connections between ostensibly different fields of study.


Very often, both in engineering and in science, we need to interpret laboratory or process data. That is a creative process because you can’t possibly ‘learn off’ all possible datasets that you’re going to be confronted with. But if you see a set of data and it puzzles you, the more you know the more likely you are to find an explanation for the patterns that you are seeing. And if you can explain the data, then perhaps you can fix problems or make processes more efficient or maybe decide that a process is not feasible.

What’s the recurring theme here? In order to be meaningfully creative, you have to know stuff and that stuff has to be relevant to what you’re doing. So, for me as chemical engineer, sitting through a creativity workshop where I’m encouraged to use my “whole brain” would be of doubtful value.


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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