Chemical engineers apply the principles of chemistry, math, and physics to the design and operation of large-scale chemical manufacturing processes. They translate processes developed in the lab into practical applications for the production of products such as plastics, medicines, detergents, and fuels; design plants to maximize productivity and minimize costs; and evaluate plant operations for performance and product quality.
Chemical engineers are employed by almost all companies in the chemical process industry. Their work also extends to processes in nuclear energy, materials science, food production, the development of new sources of energy, and even medicine. In addition to process and product development and design, chemical engineers work in areas such as production, research, environmental studies, market analysis, data processing, sales, and management. They affect or control at some stage the materials or production of almost every article manufactured on an industrial scale.
Chemical engineering is broader in scope than the other branches of engineering because it draws on the three main engineering foundations: math, physics, and chemistry-whereas the other branches are based on only the first two. A specific interest in chemistry combined an aptitude for math and science attracts individuals to the profession. The curriculum of study for chemical engineering is similar to that for chemistry but includes course work in engineering-related areas such as thermodynamics, fluid dynamics, process design, and control and electronics.
Patrick Dickerson, a chemical engineer at Solutia, Inc., works in an area that produces hexamethylene diamine-a molecule used in the production of nylon. Dickerson explains that his work involves applying chemists findings to large-scale production. "We take what a chemist does-they synthesize a small amount of a material-and we scale it up to making several hundred tons per day. This process includes determining how to separate the desired product from its impurities." Dickerson continues, "We focus on kinetics more, and we're concerned with things such as fluid flow and heat transfer on a large scale-things that you don’t necessarily have to worry about with smaller reactions in beakers. We design equipment that will accommodate these concerns."
Once processes and equipment are designed, chemical engineers remain on hand at a production facility to solve problems that occur as the processes continue. When changes occur that upset a running system, chemical engineers analyze samples from the system, looking at parameters such as temperatures, pressures, and flow rates to determine where the problem exists. They also work on expanding projects, evaluating new equipment, and improving existing equipment and processes. Meeting safety, health, and environmental regulations is also a large part of a chemical engineer's work life.
Chemical engineers say that work experience is an extension of their education in the field. Dickerson explains, "In school, you learn about the theory. On the job, you learn real-world applications." He adds, "At work, I focus on manufacturing and the problems that arise, the real nuts and bolts of engineering; I have to find out how to make a process work." Scott Harvey, a chemical engineer for Lonza, Inc., a specialty chemical producer, says, "Your degree is the key to starting your career, but on-the-job training is what make you good at the job."
Gaining experience while still in school helps many individuals decide on their career paths. Both Dickerson and Harvey say that internships with their present employer led them to a career in their respective areas. Undergraduate work experience helped them decide what areas they were most interested in.
Michele van Krieken, chemical engineering consultant for DuPont businesses, is responsible for making suggestions about new process ideas developed by DuPont's research departments. She performs economic analyses and recommends whether researchers should pursue development of the new process. Van Krieken says her position has traditionally been filled by experienced chemical engineers. However, her co-op work experience with the company gave her the edge and background needed to move into this position relatively quickly.
Chemical engineers enjoy considerable variety in their work. "I work in the R&D labs", says Harvey. "In my work, I don’t believe there's a typical project. The work can vary greatly depending on the type of project and its stage of development-for example, bench-top experimental work, report writing, technical presentations, or production-scale trial batches. I really enjoy the variety of the job." Harvey focuses on reaction engineering and describes his work as process or technology transfer-the transfer of new or improved chemical processes from the bench scale to commercial-scale equipment. Another satisfying part of his job, is seeing an idea through from the lab to the commercial plant. Dickerson agrees that chemical engineering is a satisfying career. "It's always nice to see that a process you worked on works. You work on improving a process and then you see those improvements in the end in the final product, and it's better than what you started with. That's a very satisfying feeling."
Chemical engineers design and operate plants and processes for large-scale production of chemical products. They use chemistry, physics, and mathematical equations to solve real problems and design ways to produce products safely and economically.
Chemical engineers typically work in manufacturing plants, research laboratories, or pilot plant facilities. They work around large-scale production equipment that is housed both indoors and outdoors. Often they are required to wear safety protective equipment, such as hard hats, goggles, and steel-toe shoes. Workdays may involve of moving from place to place within a facility. Chemical engineers also work in business and management offices; these positions, however, often require visiting research and production facilities. Interaction with other people who are part of a team is critical to the success of projects.
Chemical engineers are employed by almost every type of company in the chemical process industry; they work in a variety of settings, such as research, design, process control, sales, economic analysis, and management. Petroleum refineries and the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and service industries also employ them. Approximately three-quarters of all chemical engineers are working in manufacturing industries; the balance are employed by government or academia or are self-employed.
A strong interest in chemistry, math, and physics is vital to success in this field because chemical engineering draws on all three disciplines. Chemical engineers are trained to apply lab processes to large-scale production, monitor processes, and understand highly technical material. As a result, thinking analytically, solving problems, and being creative are essential. Because projects often involve complex processes and problems that require teamwork and the preparation of reports, good interpersonal, oral, and written communication skills are highly desirable.
To enter the field, professionals must have at least a four-year bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering that includes course work in physics, math (through differential equations), and computers. A chemical engineer’s curriculum is similar to that of a chemist, but also includes course work in engineering-related areas such as heat and mass transfer, thermodynamics, fluid dynamics, process design and control, and electronics. Economics, psychology, and political science help chemical engineers to understand the impact of technology on society. Chemical engineers say that although they learn a lot of theory in the classroom, most of their knowledge of real-world applications is derived from on-the-job training.
The demand in the past few years for chemical engineers at major chemical and pharmaceutical companies is expected to continue. As the biotechnology industry continues to grow, opportunities for chemical engineers will expand. Chemical engineering research jobs are increasing in importance with the development and large-scale implementation of new energy sources designed as substitutes for the world’s diminishing supplies of petroleum and natural gas.
To find out what a person in this type of position earns in your area of the country, please refer to the ACS Salary Comparator. Use of the ACS Salary Comparator is a member-only benefit. General information about salaries in chemical professions can be obtained through published survey results.
American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE)
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AIChE has also produced career material as part of the Sloan Career Cornerstone Series.
Find a mentor and/or summer work experience in the process industry. This helps you determine your areas of interest. Consider a variety of industries when planning for a career in the field-pharmaceutical companies, oil companies, and the government-not only chemical companies. Develop written and oral communication skills. Participate in activities that call for teamwork, require analytical skills, and offer opportunities to interact with others.