What exactly is a chemical engineer? Many would say that it is simply a “chemist who builds things” or an “engineer who makes chemicals. However, neither of these statements is completely true. The term “chemical engineer” is not meant to actually describe what it is a chemical engineer does, but to describe what sets it apart from the other branches of engineering: civil, mechanical, and electrical. On average, chemical engineers are numerically the smallest but also the highest paid. It is not a profession the must dwell on the past for comfort and support, for its greatest accomplishments are still yet to come.
Chemical engineering, a prominent and growing career, requires a detailed understanding of the how and why chemical processes work and also how they can be further improved. To develop new improvised methods for these processes to function more useful and economical, a chemical engineer uses theories and laws of chemistry. They are, however, often referred to as the “universal engineer” because they must not only have a broad knowledge of chemistry and physics but also of mechanical and electrical engineering.
The Industrial Revolution sparked a new curiosity and need for chemical engineering. In order for certain industries to sustain growth, the production of chemicals became of great importance, especially sulfuric acid. In attempts to improve the process of making this chemical, much time, money and effort was put into it. By this, the slightest savings led to large profits because of the vast quantities of sulfuric acid consumed by industries (Pafko, “Setting Stage”).
To create the much needed sulfuric acid, a long used and little understood method was used, the lead-chamber method. During this process, one of the main ingredients, nitrate, was often mostly lost into the environment. Because nitrate must be imported, and the process used so much of it, it became very costly. Improvement was needed in order for sulfuric acid to be made at a much lower cost, since it was so widely used (Pafko, “Setting Stage”).
In the late 1800’s, Americans became fascinated with news that was coming over from across the Atlantic. Though it was not the advancements in the chemical engineering field that so interested them, it was the news of a serial killer “Jack the Ripper”. It seamed as though the surfacing of chemical engineering would just slip by unnoticed. However, the outline for the chemical engineering profession was laid out and fully recognized and appreciated by a select few (Pafko, “Setting Stage”).
Lewis Norton, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) first initiated the first four-year bachelor program in chemical engineering. It was called “Course X” (ten). Shortly after, Tulane University and the University of Pennsylvania began their own four-year programs. Chemistry departments began to see that there was a need for a profession that could apply all of the knowledge of chemistry gained throughout the last hundred years to fulfilling the needs of the emerging industries. With this in mind they began to teach their students a combination of mechanical engineering and chemical industry, with the emphasis on engineering, resulting in the category of chemical engineering. MIT gained an independent chemical engineering department in 1920 (Pafko, “Setting Stage”).
With more and more competition between major manufacturers arising, chemical plants strived for low costing and mass-producing methods was becoming important. Chemical plants needed to be optimized. This called for things such as: continuously operating reactors, recycling and recovery of non-reacted reactants, and cost effective purification of products. With these new advancements chemical engineers were now called for plumbing systems (for which traditional chemists were unprepared) and detailed chemistry knowledge (unbeknownst to mechanical engineers). These new chemical engineers were capable of designing and operating the increasingly complex chemical operations that were rapidly coming out (Pafko, “Setting Stage”).
In the late 1800’s, George E. Davis, an industrial Alkali inspector from Manchester England, presented a series of twelve lectures on the operation of chemical processes, which later became known as “unit operations”. It was these twelve lectures that sparked the interest as chemical engineering as a profession. Davis published “handbook of Chemical Engineering” which later had a second edition. He stresses the value of large-scale experimentation, safety practices, and a unit operation approach. He was the one responsible for applying the term “chemical engineering” to the engineering profession in general helping in many ways to define the scope of today’s chemical engineer (Pafko, “Setting Stage”).
Besides Davis, there were two other important men in the field of early chemical engineering. One of which was the first to teach the four-year course in chemical engineering entitled “Course X”, Lewis Mills Norton, a professor of organic and industrial chemistry at MIT. The other was the first of seven to graduate from “Course
X”, William Page Bryant. He became known as the world’s first formal chemical engineer (Pafko, “Setting Stage”).
All engineers in general employ mathematics, physics, and the art of engineering to overcome technical problems in a safe an economical fashion. The chemical engineer calls upon the immense and prevailing science of chemistry to solve a wide array of problems. The title “chemical engineer” may seem like it is a profession widely full of specialists, however, chemical engineers are very versatile and are able to handle many different types if technical problems (Pafko “Chemical Engineer”). In some cases, they do specialize in one specific area, such as oxidation, pollution control, or plastics production (”Chemical Engineer” 101).
More typically, chemical engineers concern themselves with the chemical processes that turn raw materials into valuable products. The skills necessary for this encompass all areas of design, testing, operation, scale-up, control, and optimization. A detailed understanding of various unit operations, that is individual chemical operations, is needed for the conversion of these raw materials into valuable products to be possible. To analyze and improve these unit operations a chemical engineer utilizes mass, momentum, and energy transfers, as well as thermodynamics and chemical kinetics (Pafko “Chemical Engineer”).
Chemical engineers should have an interest and aptitude in math and science as well as good analytical skills. They must be able to work as part of a team and to communicate their ideas well. Chemical engineers must be innovative and original and enjoy the challenge of mastering new areas of their field (”Chemical Engineer” 103).
A chemical engineer works with the production of chemicals as well as other products that may require chemical processing. Generally they build on the findings of research chemists, who work with small amounts of materials in laboratories. Concerned with the design, construction, operation, and marketing of equipment that can reproduce
on a large scale the processes or products developed by chemists, they work with industrial chemical processes to help produce a large variety of goods. A chemical engineer may also work in many types of industries, primarily though ones that produce chemicals, petroleum, and electronic products (”Chemical Engineer” 101). According to Pafko, 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.
Chemicals are used in the processing and treatment of many of the foods we eat, much of the water we drink, and many of the clothes we wear. It is the chemical engineer that develops the processes and designs the factories that make is possible to bring these everyday products to the consumers. The engineer solves the practical problems that occur in the manufacturing of such products. At many points during their work, the chemical engineer consults with a chemist. However, it is the chemical engineer that does the experiments and calculates such things as the temperature and pressure to be expected during an industrial process (”Chemical Engineer” 101). They also help to design buildings and plan what machinery may be needed. Other jobs that a chemical engineer may be expected to do is estimate the number of people needed to operate a plant or the amount of the cost of power and raw materials (102).
Chemical engineers generally work in clean, well-equipped plants and laboratories. At times, they may be called to supervise construction or production lines. Chemicals can be dangerous, therefore workers follow strict safety regulations and injuries are very rare. The basic workweek for a typical chemical engineer is forty hours. However, overtime is often necessary (”Chemical Engineer” 103).
To enter the chemical engineering field you need at least a bachelor’s degree in it. To obtain a bachelor’s degree in engineering it usually takes about four or five years. However, many jobs in chemical engineering also require advanced degrees. With one or two years of a full time study you can earn a master’s degree. A master’s degree in business administration has been found very useful by many chemical engineers, especially if they want to become managers. If you want to do research or teach at the university level, you will need to obtain a doctoral degree. It usually takes about four years of full-time study beyond the bachelor’s degree level to earn a doctoral degree (”Chemical Engineer” 102).
Engineers who offer their services to the public or whose work affects life, health, or property must be licensed by the state in which they are working. Generally, they need a degree from an approved engineering college, about four years of work experience as an engineer, and a passing grade on a state examination before they can be licensed as a professional engineer (”Chemical Engineer” 103).
Some engineering colleges offer work-study programs that combine work experience with formal study. Many engineers continue their education on a part time basis after they have found a job in their field. Employers often pay tuition for courses
that engineers take to improve their job skills. Chemical engineers must be willing to study throughout their careers so that they can keep up with advances in engineering technology (”Chemical Engineer” 102).
If a chemical engineer takes part in a work-study program in college, they may be able to go to work full time for your employer after you graduate. College placement offices will also help find a job as a chemical engineer (”Chemical Engineer” 103). Newspapers and professional journals often list openings for chemical engineers. Another way to get a job is to just directly apply to companies that hire chemical engineers (Woodburn 114).
Advancement in the chemical engineering field depends on education and experience. Chemical engineers who have a bachelor’s degree generally start as assistants to experienced engineers. As with any job, after they gain enough experience, they are given more responsibility. Many go on to become experts in their special field. They can become team leaders or technical service and development (TS&D) officers. The TS&D engineer expands the applications for his or her company’s products and then finds new ones. Some chemical engineers go on to become managers or even executives. Some start their own firms or businesses, while others use their background in chemical engineering to advance in marketing or sales careers (”Chemical Engineer” 103).
The employment outlook for chemical engineers is good. The number of jobs is expected to increase through the year 2005, mainly because of expansion in the energy and chemical industries. However, production improvement may lessen the number of
job openings in this industry. Job opportunities for chemical engineers will be better in pharmaceuticals, with specialty chemical manufacturers, and in nontraditional areas such
The chemical engineer, with a bachelor’s degree, is usually paid very well. While this may be partly because of a broad background in science and engineering, it also has a lot to do with the type of industries that the chemical engineers are employed by. Bout half of today’s chemical engineers are employed with such industries like petroleum and petrochemical. Often these industries require enormously expensive capital equipment, and therefore employee salaries become a much smaller part of the overall cost of doing business. Because of this, it makes good sense for these companies to pay handsomely to get the best person for the job (Pafko “Wages”).
Earnings vary depending on the experience of the chemical engineer, the location, and the kind of job. Currently, chemical engineers with bachelor’s degrees earn a starting salary pf about $36,000 to $41,000 a year. Engineers with advanced degrees start at salaries that average of about $44,900 to $46,800 a year. Experienced chemical engineers average of about $57,000 annually, while some senior engineers can earn $87,000 or more a year. Chemical engineers employed by private companies generally earn more than those employed by the federal government. Benefits usually include paid holidays and vacations, health insurance, and pension plans (”Chemical Engineer” 103).
In conclusion, a chemical engineer must be well educated in the fields of science, especially chemistry, and math. They should have the ability to think quickly on their feet
and come up with new and innovated ideas and ways pf solving technical problems. A chemical engineer’s knowledge of basic physics, chemistry and mechanical engineering gives them the perfect combination to solve a variety of problems in a variety of industries.