What Is Chemical Engineering?

Chemical engineers, chemical engineering
Chemical engineers work in a variety of fields. (Image credit: auremar | Shutterstock )

Chemical engineering is the branch of engineering that deals with chemical production and the manufacture of products through chemical processes. This includes designing equipment, systems and processes for refining raw materials and for mixing, compounding and processing chemicals to make valuable products. 

George E. Davis, an English engineer, is credited with founding the field of chemical engineering in the late 19th century. He published the first truly comprehensive overview of the practice in his two-volume "Handbook of Chemical Engineering" (Davis Bros., 1901; revised 1904), based on a series of 12 lectures he gave at the Manchester School of Technology (now part of the University of Manchester). Interestingly, he never taught another course in his lifetime, opting to devote his career to consulting. His handbook, however, would serve as the fundamental text for chemical engineering studies for decades to come. 

What do chemical engineers do?

Chemical engineers apply the principles of chemistry, biology, physics and math to solve problems that involve the production or use of chemicals, fuel, drugs, food and many other products, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). 

Chemical engineers work in a variety of fields, according to the BLS. For instance, they may work at a petroleum refinery to turn crude oil into gasoline, jet fuel, diesel fuel, lubricating oil, solvents and petrochemicals; at a fertilizer plant to produce ammonium nitrate, or at a personal-care product manufacturer to mix dozens of ingredients to produce shampoo or skin lotion. 

Here are some recent projects involving chemical engineers:

  • Norma Alcantar, an associate professor in the department of chemical and biomedical engineering at the University of South Florida, is investigating properties of prickly pears in the hope of developing methods for rural and underdeveloped communities to purify drinking water.
  • Jong-Man Kim, a chemical engineer at Hanyang University in South Korea, developed a new fingerprinting method using sweat pores. It may be faster and more reliable than traditional methods.
  • Mike Solomon, a chemical engineer at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, is leading a team that is developing a method of controlling crystals using light and chemistry, which could make clothing or cars change color on demand.

Educational requirements

Chemical engineering combines a background in chemistry with engineering and economics concepts to solve technological problems. Critical skills needed in chemical engineering are an in-depth understanding of chemistry, mechanical engineering and fluid dynamics. Additionally, manufacturing facilities can be quite large, and structural considerations must be taken into account. For this reason, chemical engineers often need knowledge of structural engineering. 

More and more, chemical engineers rely on computer-aided design (CAD) systems to create chemical plants and equipment, according to the BLS. CAD systems allow for quick and easy modifications of designs. 

Chemical engineer Norma Alcantar uses the prickly pear cactus in her work to create an inexpensive, sustainable way to purify drinking water. (Image credit: Norma A. Alcantar, Department of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering, University of South Florida)

Where do chemical engineers work?

Chemical engineering jobs fall into two main groups: industrial applications and development of new products. Chemical engineers may spend time at industrial plants, refineries and other locations, where they monitor or direct operations or solve on-site problems. 

Manufacturing industries that employ chemical engineers include petroleum refining, plastics, paint, batteries, agricultural chemicals (fertilizers, pest control and weed control), explosives, textiles, food processing, consumer products (cleaning, personal care, lawn care) and pharmaceuticals as well as chemical manufacturers that supply products to countless other industries. 

Many chemical engineers belong to the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), a professional organization established in 1908 that has more than 45,000 members in over 100 countries. 

Chemical engineer salary

Most chemical engineer jobs require at least a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering, and many employers also require state certification as a professional engineer (PE). A master's degree is often required for promotion to management, and ongoing education and training are needed to keep up with advances in technology, test equipment, computer hardware and software as well as government regulations. 

According to Salary.com, as of July 2014 the salary range for a newly graduated chemical engineer with a bachelor's degree is $53,493 to $82,127. The range for a mid-level engineer with a master's degree and five to 10 years of experience is $72,520 to $113,348; and the range for a senior engineer with a master's degree or doctorate and more than 15 years of experience is $97,687 to $144,016. Many experienced engineers with advanced degrees are promoted to management positions where they can earn even more. 

What is the future of chemical engineering?

The BLS estimates that employment of chemical engineers will grow 4 percent from 2012 to 2022, slower than the average for all occupations. "Demand for chemical engineers' services depends largely on demand for the products of various manufacturing industries," the BLS said. There should still be many opportunities for highly qualified applicants, particularly those who have kept abreast of the latest developments in technology. 

Jim Lucas is a freelance writer and editor specializing in physics, astronomy and engineering. He is general manager of Lucas Technologies

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Jim Lucas
Live Science Contributor
Jim Lucas is a contributing writer for Live Science. He covers physics, astronomy and engineering. Jim graduated from Missouri State University, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in physics with minors in astronomy and technical writing. After graduation he worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory as a network systems administrator, a technical writer-editor and a nuclear security specialist. In addition to writing, he edits scientific journal articles in a variety of topical areas.