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Chemical Engineering Job Description

Updated on June 1, 2014

Chemical Engineering Job Description

It is hard to give precise description of a chemical engineering job. ‘Chemistry at industrial scale’ is a good answer. But that is far from explanatory. Chemical engineers work in many sectors performing multiple tasks. So instead of explaining chemical engineering in general, let's understand it with an example. A chemical engineer loves to work in petroleum industries. So let's setup a petroleum plant. While its establishment and operation, we'll see how and when a chemical engineer in needed.

Difference between Chemistry and Chemical Engineering

For petrol production, first thing we need is raw material. We import mixed, impure hydrocarbon gases from somewhere. Now we just have to purify them and we'll get our petrol, easy. A chemist with expertise in chemistry says some sort of distillation, evaporation combination of process yields petrol. But he can’t do it. He happens to deal with test tubes and flasks while we are talking about gallons. This is the difference between chemistry and chemical engineering. While a chemist knows the chemical reaction's mechanism, implementation on commercial scale is done only by the chemical engineer. Still, the chemist knows that we will need distillation, evaporation etc type equipments (but they would be big sized towers and not chemistry lab equipments).

Distillation Towers
Distillation Towers | Source

What do chemical engineers do

To the question, what do chemical engineers do, we can say that they design and operate a plant. They also look after its income and expenditure. But hold on, tower design! Isn't it civil engineering? It is, but what about dimensions. The height, width and the type of tower is very important. We can't be arbitrary, there's a reaction occurring inside, a whole lot of complex heat transfer, mass transfer stuff is involved that is known only to chemical engineer(s).

It is taught in chemical engineering to estimate heat transfer data of different chemical reactions and use them in macroscopic industrial scale operation. Here his job is to calculate thickness of towers to restrict the heat produced within. Also, many chemical reactions occur in layers (stages) So the chemical engineer's job is to calculate the precise height to accommodate required number of stages with minimum material cost.

So considering the heat, pressure and various other parameters and applying process design concepts, the chemical engineer in collaboration with the civil engineer designs the towers required.

We have our towers built; it’s time to operate them. Let's connect these towers using pipes and tubes. The chemical engineer puts some meters here and there, does some calculations involving pipe sizes, pressures in pipes etc and we have our flow stream established. All this is based on fluid mechanics, a major subject in chemical engineering.

Now we have our process running, congrats, we are producing petrol. But wait a minute; our output is just 5 liters a day! It was supposed to be 6000 liters. Our chemical engineer comes to the rescue. He says there's something wrong with various input and output rates, they're not optimum. He does a lot of chemical engineering calculations, involving recycle streams, purge, bypass and adds some new pipelines back and forth. We run the process again and whoa...., we are getting 7000 liters petrol every day.

Chemical engineering process control

But suddenly something goes wrong. The quality as well as the quantity of the petrol decreases. Inspection unveils that one of the pipelines has got partly clogged. Luckily, our chemical engineer had foreseen it. He has software installed which can close or open valves at various places and junctions. He quickly calculates and feeds input to the software to close and open valves here and there. Though the software is a computer engineer’s work, the inputs to be fed can only be calculated by knowing the reaction type and process control mechanisms.

Process control in chemical engineering can be understood by the following example

Assume three stages in our petroleum production process. At stage 1 we are feeding raw materials A and B. At stage 2 we are getting an intermediates C and D. At stage 3 we get the product E.

Now as per our initial situation, pipeline corresponding to A gets clogged partially. We see that the product (E) quality gets hampered, but we can't do much as we don't know the flow rates and mechanism at intermediate stages. Only a chemical engineer with adequate knowledge of chemical engineering process control knows how to tamper with the rates of B, C and D to get the product (E) quality back.

So after taking required control measures our derailed process is back on track with minimal losses and good quality petrol production, though not 7000 liters until the clogging is removed.

What is chemical engineering

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Plant Economics

Things are going smooth and good. We are getting 7000 liters of petrol a day, 1000 more than we estimated. Everyone is happy...., but the chemical engineer is busy with something. What is it, looks like maths and statistics. Oh, it is economics, chemical engineering plant economics. He is planning to get more out of the plant we have established. He proposes that some reduction in feed inlet and labor force is profitable. After implementation we see that we are getting 6700 liters of petrol every day, though it is less than our 7000 liters a day mark, the gross profit is much higher.

Chemical engineering jobs

Sectors providing chemical engineering jobs other than petroleum industries

  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Atomic Research
  • Water facilities
  • Marine
  • Mining
  • Polymer Industries
  • Paper industry
  • Organic chemicals
  • Sugar industry
  • Cement industry

Chemical engineering salary

Sorry for being so long, to explain it all in few words was impossible for me. I still might have missed a thing or two here. In case you are wondering about salary of chemical engineering jobs, rest assured. That’s a lot of work and requires particular skill sets. The median salary of chemical engineers is $120,000 in USA. You can get much more than that of course.

You could always expect a surge in salary with chemical engineering post graduation degrees like petroleum engineering, nanotechnology etc.

Comments and queries on chemical engineering

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    • dhimanreena profile image

      Reena Dhiman 2 years ago

      nice information for a job seeker in chemical engineering industry

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