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Chemical Engineering: One of the Oldest Engineering Disciplines

Updated on October 28, 2015

Many people often relate chemical engineering with chemistry, however in reality, chemical engineering is different from chemistry. To understand this type of engineering in simple words, it can be defined as the study and practice of transforming substances at large scales. These transformations are usually done to create or produce different types of substances or energy. Like various other types of engineering, chemical engineering is also one of the oldest forms of engineering, which is being practiced since 300 B.C. However, the formal academic programs for chemical engineering were started in the 20th century in the U.S.

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According to the latest survey published by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), UK, the number of students opting for chemical engineering courses has almost doubled over the past few years. As per the UCAS’s ‘end of cycle statistics’ for 2014, around 3, 575 undergraduates started a chemical engineering course, showing an annual increase of 28% when comparing the number of students opted for these courses in the year 2013 (around 2, 790). This data shows that the chemical engineering sector is the most popular engineering career choices among a large number of candidates. It is interesting to know that one in four undergraduates are females who are taking chemical engineering as their career.

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Who are chemical engineers?

The professionals who develop and design different kinds of chemical manufacturing processes are generally known as chemical engineers. These engineers mainly deal with the production or use of chemicals, food, drugs, fuel and various other products. By applying the principles of chemistry, physics, biology and mathematics, they solve various issues related to chemicals. Moreover, in chemical industry, these engineers use different ways to illustrate or define a process, some of these ways include:

  • Process Flow Diagram (PFD)

  • Simplified process description

  • Detailed process description

  • Piping and instrumentation diagram (P&ID)

  • Project management

  • Process simulation

Earlier, chemical engineers were mainly appointed in the oil and pharmaceutical industry. In these industries, the major role of these engineers were to convert the oil-based substances into energy or other useful chemical products. In the current era, the job profile of chemical engineers has become more dynamic and diverse. Today, they are high in demand across industries throughout the world. Now, they are hired to perform assorted activities ranging from incorporating circuits to disease-fighting drugs to fuel cells.

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Scope for chemical engineers

There is a long list of products that are impacted by chemical engineers. A large number of industries employ these professionals to accomplish various tasks. Below is the list of some key industries that employ chemical engineers:

  • Manufacturing Industry

  • Pharmaceuticals Industry

  • Health-care Industry

  • Design and Construction Industry

  • Pulp and Paper Industry

  • Petrochemicals Industry

  • Food Processing Industry

  • Specialty chemicals Industry

  • Microelectronics Industry

  • Electronics and Advanced Materials Industry

  • Polymers Industry

  • Business Services Industry

  • Biotechnology Industry

  • Environmental Health and Safety industry, etc.

Within these industries, chemical engineers usually work to resolve various technical issues by applying their knowledge of science and mathematics. Furthermore, the growth scope of these engineers is not limited to the above-mentioned industries. They can also display their expertise in the field of education, finance, law, medicine and other sectors that require technical training.

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A comparison between the old and modern discipline of chemical engineering

In the olden times, chemical engineers were mainly concerned with the process engineering, which is associated with two complementary areas, chemical reaction engineering and separation processes. This engineering was mainly focused on the design, operation, control and optimization of chemical and biological processes. The modern discipline of chemical engineering is quite broader and comprises much more than just process engineering. Nowadays, these engineers are more engaged in the development and production of an assorted range of products, commodities, and specialty chemicals.

In the present scenario, chemical engineers are also contributing their efforts towards producing various products and materials needed for industries like automotive, aerospace, electronic, biomedical, military and environmental applications. In addition to this, these professionals are often required to work with biology and biomedical engineers on various biological projects. Over the coming 10 years, chemical engineers will see a fairly rapid growth of around 7.9% within the industry. There will be more demand for these engineers for designing equipment and processes for large-scale chemical manufacturing, planning and testing methods of manufacturing products and treating byproducts as well as for supervising production.

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Work environment of chemical engineers

Most of the engineers in this area needs to work in office buildings, industrial plants or laboratories depending upon the demand of the project. Some engineers may also require working outdoors at construction sites, production sites or oil and gas exploration for the purpose of solving various on-site issues. Some may even require traveling within or outside the country.

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Skills required to become a chemical engineer

  • Excellence in applying various scientific rules and methods to solve various issues

  • Strong logical and reasoning abilities to identify alternative solutions or approaches to problems

  • Ability to identify complex issues, developing solutions and implementing those solutions to resolve the issues

  • Ability to judge and make decisions on time

  • System analysis ability

  • Good at mathematics

  • An interest to learn new things

  • Good communication skills to convey information effectively

  • Ability to analyze the needs and product requirements

  • Good monitoring and performance measuring skills

  • Time management skills

  • Persuasion skills

  • Excellent IT skills

  • Ability to work in a team

  • Analytical skills

How to start a career in chemical engineering?

A bachelor's degree in chemical engineering is a primary requirement for the candidates who wish to make their career in this field. However, a master's degree in chemical engineering is vital for candidates who want to advance in careers related to engineering, science and medicine. The cost of pursuing a master's degree in chemical engineering may vary between institutions. Some of the top-notch institutions for pursuing chemical engineering degree throughout the globe (based on the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2015) are:

  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)- United States

  • The university of California, Berkeley (UCB)- United States

  • Stanford University- United States

  • University of Cambridge- United Kingdom

  • National University of Singapore (NUS)- Singapore

  • Imperial College London- United Kingdom

  • California Institute of Technology- United States

  • The university of Tokyo- Japan

  • University of Oxford- United Kingdom

  • Kyoto University- Japan

It usually takes around 2 to 3 years for completing the degree course from a well-known institution. In addition to standard degrees in engineering, there are several colleges that offer 2-3 years degree programs in engineering technology. These courses are generally based on the latest aspects of engineering sector and cover the current issues in the application of engineering principles. Rather than just preparing the students for jobs, these courses aims to make the students gain the knowledge of practical design and production work.

How to flourish in this career?

Furthermore, to accelerate in this career, engineers must be aware for the latest developments in this field as well as the issues that they have the potential to solve. Chemical engineers can also find opportunities in areas such as microelectronics, biomedicine, cancer diagnostics, therapeutics, reaction engineering and many more. Plenteous chemical engineering jobs available across industries throughout the world for the deserving candidates.

Chemical engineering is a magical field in which, raw materials are transformed into the useful ones. The demand for chemical engineers will always exist despite the market conditions. Therefore, this sector is highly attractive for graduates as it offers a great potential for career growth.

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