Chemical engineers combine the science of chemistry with the discipline of engineering in order to manufacture materials and products essential to modern society. They are involved with the full scale of processes from the laboratory bench to the pilot plant and eventually at the manufacturing facility.
How does chemical engineering differ from chemistry? Chemists discover the chemical reactions by which useful products may be made. Chemical engineers discover the processes and develop the equipment that allows the chemical reactions to work economically. The academic training of chemical engineers provides a strong background for a variety of areas, including:
- Process design
- Production engineering
- Research and development
- Marketing/technical sales
- Environmental and waste management
Chemical engineering is particularly adaptable to solving the technological problems of modern society. Therefore, chemical engineers are often employed by the government and industrial firms. They make invaluable contributions to an improved quality of life by producing pharmaceutical products to cure diseases, fertilizers and pesticides to help feed a growing population, fabrics to clothe us, and petroleum products to warm our houses and move our cars. Chemical engineers also are deeply involved in preventing and treating pollution.
In addition to these key areas, chemical engineers are actively developing advanced materials used in the communications and space industries, food and beverage industries, and modern electronics.
The Laboratory versus a Plant Setting
It is instructive to examine some differences between chemical processes conducted in a laboratory setting compared to those larger-scale operations completed at either a pilot plant, where the process is conducted with intermediate-scale equipment used to optimze and scale up the process, or full-scale manufacturing facility. For example, the mixing of reactants in a small flask or beaker is easily accomplished using a magnetic stirrer or small mechanical stirrer. However, in an industrial process the phenomenon of uniform mixing is much more complicated, and specially designed agitators are required. Chemical engineers study the various mathematical models of mixing in order to design the most efficient mixing device.
Another example involves the heating of a reaction mixture. On a small scale, heating is accomplished using a hot plate or similar equipment, whereas on a large scale, heat exchangers are commonly used. The theory of heat transfer and the various designs of heat exchangers are topics studied by chemical engineers.
Another major difference occurring in a large-scale chemical plant is that fluids are being moved around from one unit to another. This requires special equipment such as pumps and valves and a knowledge of the fundamentals of transport phenomena and, in particular, fluid dynamics.
Chemical engineers are involved in a variety of different occupations within the general field of chemical engineering. The breakdown within the United States is as follows: process/production (30%); research and development (25%); sales/marketing (7%); education (4%); and other (13%).
A student interested in pursuing a career in chemical engineering should first of all be interested in mathematics and science, enjoy problem solving and troubleshooting, be decisive and innovative, and have excellent communication skills.
A Diverse Profession
In order to indicate the diverse nature of the chemical engineering profession, the typical work characteristics of different types of chemical engineers are examined.
First, let us consider chemical engineering research and development (R&D). The general objective in this area is to transform laboratory processes into commercial operations that are safe, efficient, and ecologically sound. Such engineers invariably work at the pilot plant level. They oversee the construction of the pilot plant, collect data, and decide whether the project should be taken to full scale. A research chemical engineer also collaborates with chemists in research laboratories. In addition to this, he or she works closely with the people who build the plants, namely, electricians, pipe fitters, boilermakers, and so forth. These chemical engineers also interact with specialists in industrial hygiene and safety, and waste disposal. The researcher spends a good deal of time analyzing and evaluating results, and transfers data to the process engineer and assists in the scale-up operations for commercial production.
Next, let us consider the chemical engineer in manufacturing (the so-called production engineer). This person is involved in producing a product in the required quality and quantity in a timely manner. This position requires exceptional leadership and interpersonal skills since one is interfacing with chemical operators on a routine basis. The production engineer (or plant manager) is also responsible for the safety of employees. In addition, a good deal of time is devoted to working with other departments, such as purchasing (raw materials), utilities (power), maintenance (repairs), marketing (production schedule), and research and process engineering (new and improved processes).
A third area involves the process engineer. This occupation concerns the scale-up of a process for commercial production. Here a chemical engineer will establish fundamental heat and material balances, develop working process flow sheets, and translate flow sheets into piping and instrument diagrams (PIDs). In addition, the process engineer has to specify the size of equipment and materials of construction. The types of equipment include reactors, distillation columns, heat exchangers, crystallizers, piping, and incinerators. This job involves close interactions with experts in chemistry, materials engineering, heat transfer, and computer simulation, to name a few. Also, the ability to work with mechanical, civil, and electrical engineers is very important. The process engineer assists as well with a plant startup.
Some chemical engineers choose to specialize in marketing and sales. These engineers are concerned with analyzing, developing, pricing, packaging, publicizing, and advertising. They must evaluate customer needs and also interact with production and R&D. In addition, it is vitally important that they understand all the details and properties of the product as well as its end uses. For this position one needs excellent people skills and a solid background in economics.
Prior to the 1970s, a large number of chemical engineers secured work in the booming petroleum industry and became involved in continuous processes. In more recent times, chemical engineers have entered many diverse fields—in particular, the pharmaceutical industry—working on the batch process level. Chemical engineers have also found employment with specialty chemical companies, as well as within the consumer and electronics industries.
Chemical engineers are actively involved in developing improved polymer processing and devices relevant to biomedical engineering. Another important research area is the physical and biological treatment of hazardous wastes. Computational methods are now used extensively in modeling studies, and computer simulation is routinely employed in plant design.
A further key area of interest involves separation techniques and technologies for solving separation problems in the chemical, environmental, food, pharmaceutical, and biotechnological industries.
Other exciting frontier areas of research in chemical engineering include molecular and nanoscale engineering, molecular simulation, surface modification, protein separation processes, supercritical fluid extraction, fluid particle systems, catalysis and reaction engineering, biochemical engineering, and computer-aided design.
see also Careers in Chemistry.
Reginald P. T. Tomkins
Savage, Phillip E. (2003). "Productivity and Quality Indicators for Highly Ranked ChE Graduate Programs." Chemical Engineering Education 37 (2).
American Institute for Chemical Engineers. Available from <http://www.aiche.org>.