Charles Sanderson

Charles Sanderson

Director of Process Optimisation at CoolPlanet

Charles Sanderson is the Director of Process Optimisation at CoolPlanet. He holds a PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Sydney, and a Master's from Imperial College London. Prior to CoolPlanet, he was Director of Fundamentals at Renmatix. There, he led a team of research chemists and engineers to develop a new-to-the-world process and was an inventor on 6 patent families. Prior to that, he worked as a Technical Director at Cargill, where he built a team of modelling specialists to both design new processes and optimise existing ones. He has been granted Freedom of the City of London, enabling him to walk his sheep over Tower Bridge. He never availed of this opportunity!

How did you get into engineering?

As a schoolboy in England, I got a job working on the Exxon refinery. There, I discovered a passion for chemical engineering. I went on to study chemical engineering at Imperial College London, and became very interested in computer modelling and biology. I won a Commonwealth Scholarship to do a PhD in Sydney, looking at the computer modelling of animal cell metabolism. Once I graduated, I promptly moved out of pharma, and went to work for AspenTech developing operator training simulators. OTS is like video games for engineers. You build a virtual plant, and you get to drive it through startup, shut down and emergencies, and practise what might happen without blowing up physical anything in the real world.

Where did you work prior to CoolPlanet?

One of my clients at AspenTech was a big American food company called Cargill, who were focussed on trying to develop environmental solutions. They had a joint venture that made a new, biodegradable, renewable plastic PLA. I supported the project by building a training simulator for the plant while it was being constructed. Ultimately they hired me on, and I helped with the physical startup of the plant.

Once I joined Cargill, I moved over to corporate research and spent 13 years there setting up a modelling team. We went into facilities and looked for opportunities to improve yield and efficiencies, increase capacity and save energy; and we helped develop designs for new processes.

While at Cargill, one thing I did was set up a new business unit with their internal venture fund. I pitched the idea of providing energy modelling and minimisation services out to customers. I spent 5 years building that business unit out within Cargill. I enjoyed the process and concept of that start up. So, when I had the opportunity to move to Philadelphia and join a new start-up in the sugar area, I jumped at the chance. They were taking woody biomass energy and converting that to industrial sugars and specialty chemicals. I joined as lead engineer on the supercritical reactor, and ended up becoming head of research.

What does your role at CoolPlanet entail?

It changes quite a bit. I lead the modelling and statistical analysis that we need. I also try to come up with new and different solutions / opportunities for various projects that we are working on. Recently, for example, I’ve been carrying out a lot of work recently around the electrification of heat - industrial heat pumps and thermal heat.

What are your favourite software tools (either for work or outside work)?

Excel - I've been playing with Excel forever and love the Visual Basic programming you can use to build “behind the scenes” macros.

Aspen Custom Modeler - This is a specialised piece of engineering software that lets you quickly create customised models for process equipment. You can write mathematical equations to describe physical properties and mechanical performance of chemical engineering unit operations (pumps, reactors, distillation columns). Because you write the equations yourself, you can describe almost any unit operation (Ion exchange, filtration flotation).

JMP - This is a powerful data analysis tool. You can pull in a lot of data and turn it into usable graphics and use statistical analysis to turn insights into models. It's interesting how much “machine learning” is being hyped up about at the moment. The underlying stats techniques have been around for decades. Computers have gotten faster and data sets have gotten bigger, which has made things easier.

What’s your proudest work-related achievement?

When I was in the start-up, we were sponsored by two large multinationals. We were challenged to get the process to run continuously for 1,000 hours - at that point, we were struggling to keep the reactor online for more than a few hours. In the course of the year, we were able to meet that goal.

It was a huge collaborative effort to get the process to run at its target yield for a long time. No one could have done it alone. We had good operators, mechanical engineers, researchers, computer modellers etc. We put a lot of hours into it.

What keeps you motivated and driven on a daily basis?

I really like solving problems. I like to find interesting solutions to complex / difficult problems. I get the biggest buzz from saving a company a chunk of carbon, or enabling someone to do something that wasn’t possible before.

I’m doing what I do because I genuinely think that we have got to change the way we are using resources as a planet. There is all sorts of interesting research happening around new materials and new ways of doing things. A lot of those ideas, though, are quite challenging to actualise into the real world.

What I enjoy about my job is that I am going into existing facilities and looking at ways of making a big impact without changing the core process - tweaking things around the edge. Outside of CoolPlanet, a lot of what I do is new process design. For example, can you replace toxic solvents in battery manufacturing with something that’s more benign? Can you displace meat by coming up with novel ingredients that have a much lower carbon footprint but the same tasty profile?

What is the hardest aspect of decarbonisation for companies?

Translating aspiration into reality. Often there are very mixed messages given to the people on the ground. The primary focus for most companies is making money. The best way for a manufacturer to make money is to keep the plant running 24/7. Often, when you come to save energy or change the energy supply, you challenge the traditional way of doing things and create a (perceived) risk of downtime. There is significant tension which frequently develops between wanting to be greener and not wanting to change anything.

Three interesting facts about you

  1. I’ve lived on four different continents.
  2. I’m a Freeman of the city of London - I once had the right to drive sheep over London Bridge.
  3. I’m still trying to learn chemical engineering 30 years on.