Chemical engineering is the branch of engineering that deals with the application of physical science (e.g., chemistry and physics), and life sciences (e.g., biology, microbiology and biochemistry) with mathematics, to the process of converting raw materials or chemicals into more useful or valuable forms. In addition to producing useful materials, modern chemical engineering is also concerned with pioneering valuable new materials and techniques - such as nanotechnology, fuel cells and biomedical engineering.[1] Chemical engineering largely involves the design, improvement and maintenance of processes involving chemical or biological transformations for large-scale manufacture. Chemical engineers ensure the processes are operated safely, sustainably and economically. Chemical engineers in this branch are usually employed under the title of process engineer. A related term with a wider definition is chemical technology. A person employed in this field is called a chemical engineer.

Chemical engineering timelineEdit

Main article: History of chemical engineering

In 1824, French physicist Sadi Carnot, in his "On the Motive Power of Fire", was the first to study the thermodynamics of combustion reactions. In the 1850s, German physicist Rudolf Clausius began to apply the principles developed by Carnot to chemical systems at the atomic to molecular scale.[2] During the years 1873 to 1876 at Yale University, American mathematical physicist Josiah Willard Gibbs, the first to be awarded a Ph.D. in engineering in the U.S., in a series of three papers, developed a mathematical-based, graphical methodology, for the study of chemical systems using the thermodynamics of Clausius. In 1882, German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, published a founding thermodynamics paper, similar to Gibbs, but with more of an electro-chemical basis, in which he showed that measure of chemical affinity, i.e., the "force" of chemical reactions, is determined by the measure of the free energy of the reaction process. The following timeline shows some of the key steps in the development of the science of chemical engineering:[3]

Applications Edit

Chemical engineering is applied in the manufacture of a wide variety of products. The chemical industry has a large scope, manufacturing inorganic and organic industrial chemicals, ceramics, fuels and petrochemicals, agrochemicals (fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides), plastics and elastomers, oleochemicals, explosives, detergents and detergent products (soap, shampoo, cleaning fluids), fragrances and flavors, additives, dietary supplements and pharmaceuticals. Closely allied or overlapping disciplines include wood processing, food processing, environmental technology, and the engineering of petroleum, glass, paints and other coatings, inks, sealants and adhesives. A variety of substances found in everyday life have been made under the supervision of a chemical engineer.

Overview Edit

Chemical engineers design processes to ensure the most economical operation. This means that the entire production chain must be planned and controlled for costs. A chemical engineer can both simplify and complicate "showcase" reactions for an economic advantage. Using a higher pressure or temperature makes several reactions easier; ammonia, for example, is simply produced from its component elements in a high-pressure reactor. On the other hand, reactions with a low yield can be recycled continuously, which would be complex, arduous work if done by hand in the laboratory. It is not unusual to build 6-step, or even 12-step evaporators to reuse the vaporization energy for an economic advantage. In contrast, laboratory chemists evaporate samples in a single step.

The individual processes used by chemical engineers (e.g., distillation or filtration) are called unit operations and consist of chemical reactions, mass-, heat- and momentum- transfer operations. Unit operations are grouped together in various configurations for the purpose of chemical synthesis and/or chemical separation. Some processes are a combination of intertwined transport and separation unit operations, (e.g., reactive distillation).

Three primary physical laws underlying chemical engineering design are conservation of mass, conservation of momentum and conservation of energy. The movement of mass and energy around a chemical process are evaluated using mass balances and energy balances, laws that apply to discrete parts of equipment, unit operations, or an entire plant. In doing so, chemical engineers must also use principles of thermodynamics, reaction kinetics, fluid mechanics and transport phenomena. The task of performing these balances is now aided by process simulators, which are complex software models (see List of Chemical Process Simulators) that can solve mass and energy balances and usually have built-in modules to simulate a variety of common unit operations.

Design Edit

Chemical engineers design chemical production equipment and entire chemical plants:

Design is worked through in a number of phases. With the process concept and intended chemical reactions in hand, a flowsheet is designed, which includes all material flows in the process, including not only starting materials and products, but all intermediates, wastes and unit operations. Preliminary design is done to approximate cost, space and environmental requirements to further evaluate the viability of the concept. Later stages require the design and specification of all parts and each piece of equipment in the process, and finally, cost calculation and project planning. Supervision of the work, testing, simulation follow. Running the process and its maintenance continues, with continual improvement, for the life of the process, followed by shutdown and cleanup of the site.

Modern chemical engineering Edit

The modern discipline of chemical engineering encompasses much more than just process engineering. Chemical engineers are now engaged in the development and production of a diverse range of products, as well as in commodity and specialty chemicals. These products include high performance materials needed for aerospace, automotive, biomedical, electronic, environmental, space and military applications. Examples include ultra-strong fibers, fabrics, dye-sensitized solar cells, adhesives and composites for vehicles, bio-compatible materials for implants and prosthetics, gels for medical applications, pharmaceuticals, and films with special dielectric, optical or spectroscopic properties for opto-electronic devices. Additionally, chemical engineering is often intertwined with biology and biomedical engineering. Many chemical engineers work on biological projects such as understanding biopolymers (proteins) and mapping the human genome. The line between chemists and chemical engineers is growing ever more thin as more and more chemical engineers begin to start their own innovation using their knowledge of chemistry, physics and mathematics to create, implement and mass produce their ideas.

Related fields and topicsEdit

Today, the field of chemical engineering is a diverse one, covering areas from biotechnology and nanotechnology to mineral processing.


Additional topics under the title AIChE's Technical Divisions and Forums in American Institute of Chemical Engineers

See also Edit

Main article: Outline of chemical engineering

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  1. From Petroleum to Penicillin. The First Hundred Years of Modern Chemical Engineering: 1859-1959. - Burnett, J. N.
  2. Mechanical Theory of Heat – Nine Memoirs on the development of concept of "Entropy" by Rudolf Clausius [1850-1865]
  3. History of Chemical Engineering – at North Carolina State University (and in general).
  4. Glasgow Herald July 18, 1888 and September 5, 1888
  5. N. A. Peppas (1989) One Hundred Years of Chemical Engineering Kluwer ISBN 0792301455
  6. However, this was an industrial chemistry course, not really dealing with engineering. N Rosenberg(1998), p 175 in E. Helpman General Purpose Technologies and Economic Growth MIT Press ISBN 0262082632
  7. 2007 Indiana Economic Development Corporation Life Sciences Report
  8. Colin Duvall and Sean F, Johnston Scaling Up: The Institution of Chemical Engineers and the Rise of a New Profession Kluwer Academic Publishers (2000)

Further readingEdit