Through the years, science fiction has entertained people from all walks of life. But when fiction inspires the brilliant minds of scientists, what was once fiction can turn into reality. This has happened several times already.
Let’s look at some examples of when fiction became a fact, thanks to the wonders of science!
We’ve seen it in Star Wars when Luke Skywalker / Darth Vader replaced his amputated arm with a robotic hand covered with synthetic skin that looked and felt real. We also saw it in Terminator, when the T-800 series were indistinguishable from humans as their cyborg tissue could also bleed, sweat, breathe, produce odor, age, and heal.
Although far from movie perfection, there are ongoing research studies for producing artificial skin from chemical engineers in Stanford University, headed by Zhenan Bao. Made with integrated circuits, their artificial skin is rubbery — it can stretch, fold, bend, twist, and could even self-heal from scratches!
Each square centimeter of the artificial skin has approximately 40,000 transistors, which remain stable even after a thousand stretches. As for the sense of touch, their artificial skin is more sensitive than human skin. As Bao described, if a touch of a finger on skin is in the kiloPascal range, the artificial skin can pick up pressure that’s a hundred times less.
By utilizing the science of photolithography, UV light can print a circuit pattern into a solid substrate in multiple layers using the same equipment used to make silicone chips. The team’s goal is to find ways how to commercialize this artificial skin so it can be used in the medical field.
Coming from Bao herself, her team found inspiration in science fiction movies, particularly Star Trek and Iron Man!
If by any chance you’ve seen Snowpiercer on Netflix, it’s a post-apocalyptic science fiction movie that features lab-grown meat. The movie has a scene where a train containing different kinds of food, will be served to respective social classes. The lower class gets The Mama, which is a large slab of synthetic meat.
Lab-grown meat is not just fiction anymore when it appeared first in the Netherlands as a hamburger in 2013. Even more recently in December 2020, Singapore approved the first commercial lab-grown meat in the form of chicken meat under the Good Meat brand, owned by a unicorn San Francisco-based company called Eat Just founded in 2011. According to Eat Just’s CEO, Josh Tetrick, he hired food scientists, biochemists, molecular biologists, analytical chemists, and chefs to make the impossible possible.
Lab-grown meat uses cellular agriculture where a blood sample or DNA from live animals is collected through harmless biopsy. From these cells, chicken, beef, and fish meat grow in steel bioreactors — equipment chemical engineers should be familiar with!
Lab-grown meat (or in-vitro meat, or cultured meat) is a gamechanger in sustainable farming as it is more ethical and sanitary — no animal is harmed and diseases from animals can be prevented. But obviously, there are major hurdles to overcome before large-scale production:
In Star Trek, there are ‘replicators’ that reproduce food and water mainly. Although, it has also shown to produce Starfleet uniforms and ship spare parts. In the real world, this is quite similar in 3D printing.
3D printing covers different bases. For example, scientists are continuously researching to improve 3D printing artificial organs and artificial tissues (such as the artificial skin featured previously). But to focus more within the realm of chemical engineering, 3D printing can be used to fabricate chemical reactors for smaller scale productions.
This research initiative was ventured by a team of scientists from the University of Glasgow, headed by chemist Leroy Cronin. Their goal was to design and fabricate affordable chemical reactors for synthetic laboratories and small-scale production plants, as alternative to using glass and specialized materials.
The team was able to hold a reaction in their 3D-printed chemical reactors. Also, the chemical reactors itself participate in the reaction! As Cronin says, “you could infinitely configure the reaction and reaction space”.
Star Wars, Star Trek, and Marvel’s Avengers are among the many sci-fi movies that delve into space travel. Since the world’s first space travel in 1961 by Soviet Yuri Gagarin, a lot of discoveries have been manifested to humankind. Today, it’s already a common sight to see astronauts floating in the ISS. We can even see Earth from space real-time!
The next space milestone everyone is keen about is commercial space tourism — where humans can tour the outer space mainly for leisure. It has happened for the select few, like with Sir Richard Branson onboard his company’s Virgin Galactic. It has yet to happen for the public as aspiring companies have already opened seat reservations, including Jeff Bezzos’ Blue Origin and Elon Musks’s SpaceX.
Since we know launching rockets involves thermodynamics, combustion, fluid flow, material science, mass and heat transfer, there is a promising career for chemical engineers in the space travel industry. The mentioned top 3 space companies are hiring aerospace engineers who have degrees in mechanical or chemical engineering, especially in propulsion design and fluid systems.
Science fiction movies and novels did not predict the future. But rather, sci-fi inspired the endless possibilities that could be made into reality — just like a feedback loop. As what you’ve seen, it’s not just up to electronic engineers; chemical engineers also play a major contributing role to the world of science and engineering.