What is Chemical Engineering

Chemical Engineers Improve The Human Condition

Scientists study the world as it is; engineers create the world that has never been.

~ Theodore von Kármán

Chemical Engineers take chemistry out of the laboratory and into the world around us. They are problem solvers who apply scientific knowledge, technical expertise, and creativity to make useful materials, efficiently and safely.

Chemical Engineers are involved in creating new wonder drugs and materials that improve life on Earth and make space exploration a reality. The Chemical Engineer is versatile. They may develop better soles for your sport shoes, or create the materials needed for the next generation of solar cells, or perfect the chocolate coating on your favorite candy bar.

Chemical Engineers work in research, design, development, production, technical sales, and management. Some are consultants, computer system designers, lawyers focusing on patent or environmental law, or brewers of specialty beers.

Chemical engineers are responsible for many the technological breakthroughs that have literally changed the course of human history. Each of the following accomplishments are just a few example of what chemical engineers have made possible.

Plastics: A Part of Everyday Life

Billiard balls were once made of ivory. This was not only costly, but also endangered elephant herds. In 1858, John Wesley Hyatt won a contest to develop a substitute for ivory by mixing a cotton derivative with nitric acid and camphor to make “celluloid.”

Celluloid turned out to be unsuitable for billiard balls, but other plastics worked. And, celluloid proved very useful in eyeglass frames, cinema film, collars and cuffs on shirts, and in many other applications.

Another breakthrough came in 1905, when Leo Baekeland developed a smooth, hard plastic from phenol and formaldehyde. “Bakelite” was used in electric insulators, clock bases, electric iron handles, and even in jewelry that is still fashionable today.

By the 1930’s, new demands generated the development of special plastics. Nylon, polyvinyl chloride, acrylics, polystyrene, polyethylene, and polypropylene were developed for toys, clothing, records, and thousands of other uses.

Today, aerospace and automotive plastics, composites, and laminates continue the history of development. Plastics are used in everything from medicine to sports, from intravenous tubing to bike helmets.

Improving the Environment: A Cleaner World for Us

Chemical engineers are key to the development of green technology and renewable energy. Not only do chemical engineers work to clean up the problems of the past, but they also are tasked with preventing potential sources of pollution. Chemical engineers work to accommodate both economic progress and improved environmental quality.

Car engines with catalytic converters, double-hosed gasoline pumps, and modern jet engines are some examples of our efforts to keep the world cleaner. Scrubbers on smokestacks and CO2 sequestration also help maintain the quality of our air.

Chemical engineers are champions of the reduced use of virgin materials and the increased recycling of useful materials.

You can do your part to help the environment by sorting your garbage for recyclables, such as paper, glass, plastics, steel, and aluminum.

Food: A Bountiful, Balanced Diet

Food shortages have been a recurring problem throughout human history. However, it is also true that many people on Earth are better fed than ever before. Crops are healthier and food is fresher. Chemical engineers have made these advances possible.

Chemical engineers have developed compact, economic ammonia plants that efficiently produce large quantities of fertilizer from nitrogen and hydrogen. Large-scale plants are located strategically, for example, in China, India, and Africa, where they can do the most good.

Chemical engineers also produce other helpful fertilizers, like phosphates and urea, and pesticides that enrich and protect our crops. And, they are at the forefront of efforts to improve food processing technology, whether the food is freeze-dried, extruded, or microwaved.

Chemical engineers working in biotechnology believe it promises even greater strides in increasing the productivity of our farms, improving the quality of our food and ending hunger.

Medicine: Extends Our Lives

Biomedical technology helps us understand our bodies’ functions. This understanding has led to improved clinical care, high-tech diagnosis and therapeutic devices, and wonders like artificial organs.

The body is, in a sense, a chemical plant, with body functions similar to chemical process reactions.

Chemical engineers and physicians work hand-in-hand to develop medicines, replacement parts, and maintenance products to keep your body’s “chemical plant” in good shape.

Chemical engineers played a major role in developing and using isotopes from fission in nuclear medicine as advanced diagnostic and treatment techniques. Clogged blood vessels are quickly located with fissionable isotopes, and body functions and processes are easily and more accurately monitored.

Wonder Drugs: Keep Us Healthy

In 1929, Sir Arthur Fleming discovered that penicillin inhibited the growth of staphylococci bacteria which can cause serious infection.

Similarly, in the late 1930’s, Dr. Selman Woksman discovered that some chemical compounds destroy harmful bacteria. He called these chemicals “anti-biotics,” Latin for “against life.” Unfortunately, these antibiotics were difficult and costly to produce, and they could only be made in small quantities.

Enter chemical engineers. They developed ways to mass-produce antibiotic drugs:

  • Increasing penicillin yield a thousand times through mutation.
  • Developing special methods for “brewing” penicillin in huge tanks.

Low-cost, widely available “wonder drugs” were the result. Penicillin, streptomycin, erythromycin – all make our lives better, healthier, and longer.

Antiobiotics keep our farm animals and pets healthy, too.

Crude Oil: Building Blocks for Things We Need

Petrochemicals, the building blocks for many things, like synthetic fibers and plastics, come from crude oil.

Chemical engineers discovered ways to use crude oil because kerosene was no longer needed for lighting after the introduction of electricity. They built thermal cracking units, called “Burton Stills,” in Indiana in 1913 to break down long-chain carbon molecules into smaller ethylenes, propylenes, etc. Later, they developed “catalytic crackling,” a more efficient way to produce petrochemicals for plastics, fibers, and elastomers.

Ethylene is the largest petrochemical building block. Ethylene glycol is “anti-freeze” for cars. Polyethylene is used for soda bottles and trash bags. Other ethylene derivatives include styrene.

Closer to home, petrochemicals derivatives include shampoos, soaps, cosmetics, shower curtains, towels, and modern molded bathtubs.

Synthetic Fibers: The Clothes We Wear

Human beings have always needed to protect themselves from the cold. Early clothes were made from animal skins, furs, grasses, silks, and other readily available materials.

In 1644, Robert Hooke, an English scientist, wanted to force a synthetic substance through tiny openings to make thread, just as silkworms and spiders do. But, it was not until 1910 that “viscose” rayon fibers were produced in this manner in the United States. And, in 1929, “nylon,” the first synthetic fiber made from long molecules called polymers, was introduced.

Some synthetic fibers are soft and cuddly, like blankets. Others can keep you warm in the winter or “breathe” to keep you cool in the summer, like those used in suits, slacks, and dresses. Some are mixed with natural fibers, like wool or cotton, as blends. Some cover sofas, car seats, beds, and floors. Some are very strong, even “bullet-proof,” and offer protection from injury.

Today, eight billion pounds of synthetic fibers are produced each year.

Rubber: Keeps Us Rolling Along

Modern society runs on rubber. More than twenty billion pounds are produced annually.

  • 66 percent of it is synthetic, and that percentage is growing.
  • 4 percent is natural rubber, and that percentage is declining.

Chemical engineers were important players on the team that developed synthetic rubber (styrene-butadiene rubber, or SBR) during World War II, when natural rubber was hard to obtain.

Today, SBR still accounts for half of all synthetic rubber produced, but the use of new synthetics is growing.

Synthetic rubber is used in tires for cars, trucks, buses and planes, in industry, in equipment like conveyor belts, gaskets and hoses, and in consumer products such as running shoes. And, what would we do without rubber bands?

This information is based primarily on “Amazing Achievements in Chemical Engineering, AIChE: Creating a World of Difference.”