Chemical Engineer

What is a Chemical Engineer?

What do you think
a Chemical Engineer is?
a) An Engineer who manufactures chemicals,
b) A Chemist who works in a factory, or
c) A glorified Plumber?

The correct answer is d) “None of the above.” (Note however, that Chemical Engineering students bored of the relentless “pipe-flow example” in Fluid Dynamics may be tempted to choose option c).)

The first two incorrect answers make sense based solely upon the narrow sounding title: “Chemical Engineer.” Surely such a person must either be a “Chemist who builds things”, or an “Engineer who makes chemicals”. Yet, the English language has never really made any sense and the name “Chemical Engineer” is a case in point.

So What is a Chemical Engineer?

It is true that Chemical engineers are engineers who are comfortable with chemistry, but to assume that all they do with this knowledge is make chemicals falls short of reality. Trying to determine what a Chemical Engineer actually does, based upon their name alone, is a dangerous business at best. The term “Chemical Engineer” does not describe the type of work a Chemical Engineer performs so much as it reveals what makes the field different from the other engineering branches.

All engineers employ mathematics, physics, and the engineering art to overcome technical problems in a safe and economical fashion. Yet, it is the Chemical Engineer alone that draws upon the vast and powerful science of chemistry to solve problems. The strong technical and social ties that bind Chemistry and Chemical Engineering are like nothing seen in the other branches of engineering. This marriage between Chemists and Chemical Engineers has been beneficial to all concerned and has rightfully brought the envy of the other engineering fields.

The breadth of scientific and technical knowledge inherent in the profession has caused some to describe the Chemical Engineer as the “Universal Engineer.” Yes, you are hearing me correctly. Despite a title that suggests a profession composed of narrow specialists, Chemical Engineers are versatile employees able to handle a wide range of technical problems.

What exactly does this “Universal Engineer” do?

During the last 100 years, Chemical Engineers have made tremendous contributions to our standard of living. To celebrate these accomplishments, the American Institute of Chemical Engineering (AICHE) has compiled a list of the “10 Greatest Achievements of Chemical Engineering.” These achievements are summarized below.

1 . The Atom, as Large as Life :

Biology, Medicine, Metallurgy, and Power Generation have been revolutionized by splitting the atom and isolating isotopes. Chemical Engineers played a prominent role in achieving both of these results. With them, and the contributions of facilities such as Du Pont’s Hanford chemical plant, World War II came to an abrupt conclusion with the Atomic Bomb. Today these technologies have more peaceful applications. Medical Doctors use isotopes to monitor body functions, quickly identifying clogged arteries and veins. Biologists gain invaluable insight into the basic mechanisms of life, and Archaeologists accurately date their historical finds.

2 . The Plastic Age :

The 19th Century saw enormous advances in polymer chemistry. However, it was in the 20th Century that Chemical Engineers were able to make polymers a viable economic reality. When Bakelite was introduced in 1908 it announced the dawn of the Plastic Age, and it quickly found uses in electric insulation, plugs & sockets, clock bases, iron cooking handles, and fashionable jewelry. Today plastic is so common its application has become transparent. All aspects of modern life are impacted by plastics.

3 . The Human Reactor :

Chemical Engineers have long studied complex chemical processes by breaking them up into smaller “Unit Operations.” Such operations consist of heat exchangers, filters, chemical reactors and the like. The human body has been analyzed in the same way thereby improving clinical care, suggesting improvements in diagnostic and therapeutic devices, and leading to mechanical wonders such as artificial organs. Medical Doctors and Chemical Engineers continue to work hand in hand to help us live longer fuller lives.

4 . Wonder Drugs for the Masses :

Chemical Engineers were able to take the small amounts of Antibiotics developed by men such as Sir Arthur Fleming (discovered Penicillin in 1929) and increase their yields several thousand of times through mutation and special brewing techniques. Low pricehigh volume drugs owe their existence to the work of Chemical Engineers. In this way, Chemical Engineers have frequently brought once rare materials to all members of society through industrial creativity.

5. Synthetic Fibers, a Sheep’s Best Friend :

From blankets and clothes to beds and pillows, synthetic fibers keep us warmcomfortable, and provide a full night’s rest. Synthetic fibers help reduce the strain on animal sources of cotton and wool, and can be tailor made to specific applications. Nylon stockings make legs look young and attractive while bullet proof vests made from Kevlar protect our police from harm.

6 . Liquified Air. Yes, it’s Cool :

When air, which consists mostly of Nitrogen and Oxygen, is cooled to very low temperatures (about 320 degrees Fahrenheit below zero) it condenses into a liquid. Chemical Engineers use cryogenics to cool and separate liquid air into its pure constituents and have developed vacuum-insulated tank trucks (just like big thermoses) to transport these materials. Nitrogen is used to recover petroleum, freeze food, produce semiconductors, and as an inert gas, while Oxygen is used to make steel, smelt copper, weld metals, and support life in hospitals.

7 . The Environment, We All Have to Live Here :

Chemical Engineers provide economical answers to clean up yesterday’s waste and prevent tomorrow’s pollutionCatalytic converters, reformulated gasoline, and smoke stack scrubbers all help to keep the world clean. Chemical Engineers reduce the strain on natural materials through synthetic replacements, more efficient processing, and new recycling technologies.

8 . Food, “It’s What’s For Dinner” :

Plants need large amounts of NitrogenPotassium, and Phosphorus to grow in abundance. Chemical fertilizers provide nutrients for crops which, in turn, assure us a bountiful and balanced diet. Fertilizers help countries like China, India, and Africa better feed their peoples. Chemical Engineers are at the forefront of food processing, and believe advances in Biotechnology can further increase food production.

9 . Petrochemicals, “Black Gold, Texas Tea” :

Chemical Engineers have developed catalytic cracking to break the complex organic molecules found in crude oil down into much simpler species. These building blocks are then separated and recombined to form many useful products including: gasolinelubricating oilsplasticssynthetic rubber, and synthetic fibers. Petroleum processing is therefore recognized as an enabling technology, without which much of modern life would cease to function.

10 . Running on Synthetic Rubber :

Chemical Engineers were prominent players in developing synthetic rubber. During World War II, synthetic rubber became of paramount importance in the war effort. This was because modern society runs on rubber. Tiresgasketshoses, and conveyor belts (not to mention running shoes) are all made of rubber. Whether you drive, bike, roller-blade, or run; odds are you are running on rubber.

Chemical Engineering Today & Tomorrow

The “Big Four” engineering fields include Civil, Mechanical, Electrical, and Chemical Engineering, and are so called because there is neither a close nor consistent fifth add to their ranks. Of these, Chemical Engineers are numerically the smallest member of the group. However, this relatively small number of Chemical Engineers hold a prominent position in many industries, and Chemical Engineers are, on average, the highest paid of the “Big Four.” Additionally, many Chemical Engineers have found their way to upper management. A Chemical Engineer is either currently, or has previously, occupied the CEO position for: 3M, Du Pont, Union Carbide, Dow Chemical, Exxon, BASF, Gulf Oil, Texaco, and B.F. Goodrich.

More typically, Chemical Engineers concern themselves with the chemical processes that turn raw materials into valuable products. This encompasses all aspects of design, testing, scale-up, operation, control, and optimization, and requires a quantitative understanding of the “Unit Operations“, such as distillation, mixing, and biological processes, that make these conversions possible. Chemical Engineering science utilizes mass, momentum, and energy transfer along with thermodynamics and chemical kinetics to analyze and improve on these “Unit Operations.”

There are about 70,000 practicing Chemical Engineers in the United States (57,000 of these are AICHE members). In the history of the profession (including those alive today) there have been only about 135,000 American Chemical Engineers. This means that over one half of all the Chemical Engineers who have ever lived are alive and contributing to society right now! Chemical Engineering is not a profession that has to dwell on the achievements of the past for comfort, for its greatest accomplishments are yet to come.

Again, What is Chemical Engineering?

Chemical Engineering is a basic discipline which serves industrial and other activities where processes occur in which materials undergo a change be it chemical or physical. The unique aspect of chemical engineering is the undertaking of chemical reactions on a production level – sometimes at thousands of tons per day! A little imagination can easily show how it may involve computers, biotechnology, extreme conditions of temperature and pressure, electronic control systems, advanced materials, etc.

Chemical engineering usually involves preparing feed materials to an appropriate condition, enabling a reaction or reactions to occur, separating and purifying the products possibly by distillation or like process, controlling wastes and ultimately adding value to a raw material in the production of something useful to people. 

What do they do?

As new graduates chemical engineers frequently act as the “doctors” of the process industries, i.e. they are concerned with diagnosing problems, recommending better performance and improving process quality. This enables the graduate to rapidly acquire invaluable process experience. They supervise the construction of large plants and are involved with the start up and control of such plants.

  • They are involved with the design of plants sometimes as something completely new and sometimes in seeking an improvement in plant operation.
  • They work with many different types of people and frequently have senior management positions.
  • Sometimes they are involved in research and development although this is not a major activity.
  • They frequently travel overseas.
  • In every activity chemical engineers must consider the expenditure of money, materials and human resources against the value of the products obtained.

Common Categories

Design engineers decide the size, working temperatures, pressures and flow rates for each unit of equipment, and then study their inter-connection to produce a complete plant, usually using computer models.

Project engineers are in charge of the construction of a new plant from start to finish – often a period of about two years. They co-ordinate scientists, draftspersons, other engineers, suppliers and accountants.

Production managers are responsible for making the required products safely and efficiently. They control raw materials, human resources, energy usage, maintenance, and not least, people and industrial relations.

Control engineers specialize in the design and specification of the instrumentation and control systems for a plant, often involving computers and microprocessors. They work closely with the design, project and plant engineers.

Plant engineers provide the production manager with technical support. Their work includes trouble shooting, improvements and modifications.

Research and Development engineers seek to find cheaper, more efficient ways of making products, with better use of energy and raw materials. R&D; engineers often complete some postgraduate university training.

Whatever the particular job held by a chemical engineer in the process industries the opportunities always exist to combine the extensive knowledge gained through school, tertiary study and work experience and apply this resource for the benefit of the quality of life.

What other industries employ Chemical Engineers

Outside forest products, industries that employ most chemical engineers are those where products are manufactured on a continuous flow basis under automatic control. The name ‘chemical’ engineer was established because it was the chemical industry which pioneered this type of engineering.

Chemicals and Pharmaceuticals. The production of fertilizers is an example of chemical production on a massive scale of thousands of tones a week. Some lifesaving pharmaceuticals on the other hand, are made only a few kilograms at a time.

Food. Freeze-drying is just one of the contributions made by chemical engineers to the preservation of food. Baking and brewing are two manufacturing processes to which chemical engineering principles are central. Synthetic proteins for animal feeds, and as a human diet supplement, are now being made from petroleum bases.

Petroleum, Petrochemicals and Plastics. Fuels and lubricants refined by chemical engineering processes are basic to today’s transport. The related petrochemical industries produce man-made fibers and the dyes to color them; synthetic detergents, and a vast range of plastics.

Metals. Chemical engineers have developed new methods of obtaining traditional metals like iron, and new ones like titanium. Pig-iron is converted to steel, aluminum is recovered from bauxite, copper is refined, all by chemical engineering processes.

Energy. When the oil we take for granted today becomes scarce tomorrow, chemical engineers will have developed alternative fuels and energy sources: alcohol from crops; oil from shale and coal; gas from waste products, even efficient ways to utilize solar energy.

Plant Design and Construction. Some chemical engineers work for international contractors who design and build plants all over the world for other chemical engineers to operate. Engineers working in this area can help directly both the developing and the developed countries.

The versatility of an education in chemical engineering is illustrated by the demand for chemical engineers in the so called non traditional fields of employment.

Management services

The Challenges facing Chemical Engineers

To have an enjoyable and satisfying career it is worthwhile to accept the challenges of life.  Just a few of the challenges facing chemical engineers are:

The Environment must be protected – future generations are dependent upon our actions in this area. Chemical engineers design and operate non-polluting and ‘clean up’ devices which help to protect the world in which we live. Remember the clean up device on motor cars operating with lead free fuel is a chemical reactor and chemical engineers are at the forefront in developing even better catalytic reactors.

Energy. In the 1970’s world oil prices rose by 1100% due to the concerted action of a few countries which led to an emphasis on energy conservation. Chemical engineers have been responsible for developing significant energy savings programs in a wide range of industries.

Computers are used in almost every industry, shop and office today. You probably use them at school or in the form of video games. Chemical engineers are not concerned with making computers but they must be able to use computers regularly to assist with solving the very many challenges encountered. Much of the design of process plant is undertaken with the assistance of a variety of computer programs that, together with the training and experience of the chemical engineer, lead to improved efficiency.

Food production requires nutrients for the soil, and herbicides and pesticides to reduce crop loss. There remains a serious imbalance in world food resources and synthetic foods can assist. All of the world’s protein requirements can be obtained synthetically using the skills of bio-chemical engineering.