What is a Chemical Engineer?

a) An Engineer who manufactures chemicals,

b) A Chemist who works in a factory, or

c) A glorified Plumber?

This is actually a trick question as the correct answer is d) "None of the above." (Note however that chemical engineering students bored with the relentless "pipe-flow example" during fluid dynamics class may begin to think of themselves as simply "glorified plumbers".)

The first two incorrect answers make sense based upon the narrow sounding title; "chemical engineer." Surely such a person must be either 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.

"Enough already...go to the bottom."

All Right, So What is a Chemical Engineer?

It is true that chemical engineers are comfortable with chemistry, but they do much more with this knowledge than just make chemicals. In fact, the term "chemical engineer" is not even intended to describe the type of work a chemical engineer performs. Instead it is meant to reveal what makes the field different from the other branches of engineering.

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 a wide range of problems. The strong technical and social ties that bind chemistry and chemical engineering are unique in the fields of science and technology. This marriage between chemists and chemical engineers has been beneficial to both sides 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 actually extremely versatile and able to handle a wide range of technical problems.

So What Exactly Does This "Universal Engineer" Do?

During the past Century, chemical engineers have made tremendous contributions to our standard of living. To celebrate these accomplishments, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) has compiled a list of the "10 Greatest Achievements of Chemical Engineering." These triumphs are summarized below:

The Atom, as Large as Life:

Biology, medicine, metallurgy, and power generation have all been revolutionized by our ability to split the atom and isolate isotopes. Chemical engineers played a prominent role in achieving both of these results. Early on facilities such as DuPont's Hanford Chemical Plant used these techniques to bring an abrupt conclusion to World War II with the production of the atomic bomb. Today these technologies have found uses in more peaceful applications. Medical doctors now use isotopes to monitor bodily functions; quickly identifying clogged arteries and veins. Similarly biologists gain invaluable insight into the basic mechanisms of life, and archaeologists can accurately date their historical findings.

The Plastic Age:

The 19th Century saw enormous advances in polymer chemistry. However, it required the insights of chemical engineers during the 20th Century to make mass produced polymers a viable economic reality. When a plastic called Bakelite was introduced in 1908 it sparked the dawn of the "Plastic Age" and quickly found uses in electric insulation, plugs & sockets, clock bases, iron cooking handles, and fashionable jewelry (see OIL). Today plastic has become so common that we hardly notice it exists. Yet nearly all aspects of modern life are positively and profoundly impacted by plastic.

The Human Reactor:

Chemical engineers have long studied complex chemical processes by breaking them up into smaller "unit operations." Such operations might consist of heat exchangers, filters, chemical reactors and the like. Fortunately this concept has also been applied to the human body. The results of such analysis have helped improve clinical care, suggested improvements in diagnostic and therapeutic devices, and led 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.

Wonder Drugs for the Masses:

Chemical engineers have been able to take small amounts of antibiotics developed by people such as Sir Arthur Fleming (who discovered penicillin in 1929) and increase their yields several thousand times through mutation and special brewing techniques. Today's low price, high volume, drugs owe their existence to the work of chemical engineers. This ability to bring once scarce materials to all members of society through industrial creativity is a defining characteristic of chemical engineering (see Plastics above, Synthetic Fibers, Food, and Synthetic Rubber below).

Synthetic Fibers, a Sheep's Best Friend:

From blankets and clothes to beds and pillows, synthetic fibers keep us warm, comfortable, and provide a good night's rest. Synthetic fibers also help reduce the strain on natural sources of cotton and wool, and can be tailored to specific applications. For example; nylon stockings make legs look young and attractive while bullet proof vests keep people out of harm's way.

Liquefied Air, Yes it's Cool:

When air is cooled to very low temperatures (about 320 deg F below zero) it condenses into a liquid. Chemical engineers can then separate out the different components. The purified nitrogen can be used to recover petroleum, freeze food, produce semiconductors, or prevent unwanted reactions while oxygen is used to make steel, smelt copper, weld metals together, and support the lives of patients in hospitals.

The Environment, We All Have to Live Here:

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

Food, "It's What's For Dinner":

Plants need large amounts of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus to grow in abundance. Chemical fertilizers can help provide these nutrients to crops, which in turn provide us with a bountiful and balanced diet. Fertilizers are especially important in certain regions of Asia and Africa where food can sometimes be scarce (See NITROGEN). Advances in biotechnology also offer the potential to further increase worldwide food production. Finally, chemical engineers are at the forefront of food processing where they help create better tasting and most nutritious foods.

Petrochemicals, "Black Gold, Texas Tea":

Chemical engineers have helped develop processes like catalytic cracking to break down the complex organic molecules found in crude oil into much simpler species. These building blocks are then separated and recombined to form many useful products including: gasoline, lubricating oils, plastics, synthetic rubber, and synthetic fibers. Petroleum processing is therefore recognized as an enabling technology, without which, much of modern life would cease to function (see OIL).

Running on Synthetic Rubber:

Chemical engineers played a prominent role in developing today's synthetic rubber industry. During World War II, synthetic rubber capacity suddenly became of paramount importance. This was because modern society runs on rubber. Tires, gaskets, hoses, 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 consist of civil, mechanical, electrical, and chemical engineers. Of these, chemical engineers are numerically the smallest group. However, this relatively small group holds a very prominent position in many industries, and chemical engineers are, on average, the highest paid of the "Big Four" (see WAGES). Additionally, many chemical engineers have found their way into upper management. A chemical engineer is either currently, or has previously, occupied the CEO position for: 3M, Du Pont, General Electric, Union Carbide, Dow Chemical, Exxon, BASF, Gulf Oil, Texaco, and B.F. Goodrich. Even a former director of the CIA, John M. Deutch, was a chemical engineer by training.

More typically, chemical engineers concern themselves with the chemical processes that turn raw materials into valuable products. The necessary skills encompass all aspects of design, testing, scale-up, operation, control, and optimization, and require a detailed understanding of the various "unit operations", such as distillation, mixing, and biological processes, which 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."

Today there are around 70,000 practicing chemical engineers in the United States (57,000 of these are AIChE members) (see AIChE MEMBERSHIP). During the entire history of the profession there have been only about 135,000 American chemical engineers (including those alive today). This means that more than a half of all the chemical engineers who have ever existed are 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.

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Setting the Stage (1888)

"The end already...go back to the top."


This page was last updated on September 18, 2000 by Wayne Pafko...

Copyright 2000, Wayne Pafko