What is a Chemical Engineer?

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.

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

All Right, 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.

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.

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 (see OIL). Today plastic is so common its application has become transparent. All aspects of modern life are impacted by plastics.

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.

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 price, high 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 (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 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.

Liquefied 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.

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 to keep the world clean. Chemical Engineers 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 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 (See NITROGEN). Chemical Engineers are at the forefront of food processing, and believe advances in Biotechnology can further increase food production.

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: 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 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. 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 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." (see WAGES) 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. Even today's director of the CIA, John M. Deutch, is a Chemical Engineer by training.

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."

Today there are about 70,000 practicing Chemical Engineers in the United States (57,000 of these are AICHE members) (see AICHE MEMBERSHIP). 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.

Table of Contents


Setting the Stage (1888)

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