Chemical engineering

Chemical engineering
Process engineers design, construct and operate plants

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 and economics, 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.



George E. Davis

A 1996 British Journal for the History of Science article cites James F. Donnelly for mentioning a 1839 reference to chemical engineering in relation to the production of sulfuric acid.[2] In the same paper however, George E. Davis, an English consultant, was credited for having coined the term.[3] The History of Science in United States: An Encyclopedia puts this at around 1880.[4] "Chemical engineering", describing the use of mechanical equipment in the chemical industry, became common vocabulary in England after 1850.[5] By 1910, the profession, "chemical engineer", was already in common use in Britain and the United States.[6]


Chemical engineering emerged upon the development of unit operations, a fundamental concept of the discipline. Most authors agree that Davis invented unit operations if not substantially developed it.[7] He gave a series of lectures on unit operations at the Manchester Technical School (University of Manchester today) in 1887, considered to be one of the earliest such about chemical engineering.[8] Three years before Davis' lectures, Henry Edward Armstrong taught a degree course in chemical engineering at the City and Guilds of London Institute. Armstrong's course "failed simply because its graduates ... were not especially attractive to employers." Employers of the time would have rather hired chemists and mechanical engineers.[4] Courses in chemical engineering offered by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States, Owen's College in Manchester, England and University College London suffered under similar circumstances.[9]

Students inside an industrial chemistry laboratory at MIT

Starting from 1888,[10] Lewis M. Norton taught at MIT the first chemical engineering course in the United States. Norton's course was contemporaneous and essentially similar with Armstrong's course. Both courses, however, simply merged chemistry and engineering subjects. "Its practitioners had difficulty convincing engineers that they were engineers and chemists that they were not simply chemists."[4] Unit operations was introduced into the course by William Hultz Walker in 1905.[11] By the early 1920s, unit operations became an important aspect of chemical engineering at MIT and other US universities, as well as at Imperial College London.[12] The American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), established in 1908, played a key role in making chemical engineering considered an independent science, and unit operations central to chemical engineering. For instance, it defined chemical engineering to be a "science of itself, the basis of which is ... unit operations" in a 1922 report; and with which principle, it had published a list of academic institutions which offered "satisfactory" chemical engineering courses.[13] Meanwhile, promoting chemical engineering as a distinct science in Britain lead to the establishment of the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) in 1922.[14] IChemE likewise helped make unit operations considered essential to the discipline.[15]

New concepts and innovations

By the 1940s, it became clear that unit operations alone was insufficient in developing chemical reactors. While the predominance of unit operations in chemical engineering courses in Britain and the United States continued until the 1960s, transport phenomena started to experience greater focus.[16] Along with other novel concepts, such process systems engineering (PSE), a "second paradigm" was defined.[17][18] Transport phenomena gave an analytical approach to chemical engineering[19] while PSE focused on its synthetic elements, such as control system and process design.[20] Developments in chemical engineering before and after World War II were mainly incited by the petrochemical industry,[21] however, advances in other fields were made as well. Advancements in biochemical engineering in the 1940s, for example, found application in the pharmaceutical industry, and allowed for the mass production of various antibiotics, including penicillin and streptomycin.[22] Meanwhile, progress in polymer science in the 1950s paved way for the "age of plastics".[23]

The Union Carbide India Limited plant where the 1984 explosion originated

Lag and environmental awareness

The years after the 1950s are viewed to have lacked major chemical innovations.[24] Additional uncertainty was presented by declining prices of energy and raw materials between 1950 and 1973. Concerns regarding the safety and environmental impact of large-scale chemical manufacturing facilities were also raised during which period. Silent Spring, published in 1962, alerted its readers of the harmful effects of DDT, a potent insecticide. The 1974 Flixborough disaster in the United Kingdom resulted in the death of 28, and damage of a chemical plant and three nearby villages. The 1984 Bhopal disaster in India killed almost 4,000. These along with other incidents affected the reputation of the trade as industrial safety and environmental protection was given more focus.[25] In response, the IChemE required safety to be part of every degree course that it accredited after 1982. By the 1970s, legislation and monitoring agencies were instituted in various countries, such as France, Germany and the United States.[26]

Recent progress

Advancements in computer science found applications designing and managing plants, simplifying calculations and drawings that previously have to be done manually. The completion of the Human Genome Project is also seen as a major development, not only advancing chemical engineering but genetic engineering and genomics as well.[27] Chemical engineering principles were used to produce DNA sequences in large quantities.[28] While the application of chemical engineering principles to these fields only began in the 1990s, Rice University researchers see this as a trend towards biotechnology.[29]


Part of History

Unit operations
Unit processes
Chemical engineer
Chemical process
Process integration
Unit operations
Momentum transfer
Heat transfer
Mass transfer
Mechanical operations
Chemical reaction engineering
Chemical kinetics
Chemical process modeling
Chemical technology
Process integration
Process design  · Fluid mechanics
Process systems engineering
Chemical plant design
Chemical thermodynamics
Transport phenomena  · *More*
Outline of chemical engineering
Index of chemical engineering articles
Education for chemical engineers
List of chemical engineers
List of chemical engineering societies
List of chemical process simulators
Perry's Chemical Engineers' Handbook

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Chemical engineering involves the application of several principles. Key concepts are presented below.

Chemical reaction engineering

Chemical reactions engineering involves managing plant processes and conditions to ensure optimal plant operation. Chemical reaction engineers construct models for reactor analysis and design using laboratory data and physical parameters, such as chemical thermodynamics, to solve problems and predict reactor performance.[30]

Plant design

Chemical engineering design concerns the creation of plans and specification, and income projection of plants. Chemical engineers generate designs according to the clients needs. Design is limited by a number of factors, including funding, government regulations and safety standards. These constraints dictate a plant's choice of process, materials and equipment.[31]

Process design

A unit operation is a physical step in an individual chemical engineering process. Unit operations (such as crystallization, drying and evaporation) are used to prepare reactants, purifying and separating its products, recycling unspent reactants, and controlling energy transfer in reactors.[32] On the other hand, a unit process is the chemical equivalent of a unit operation. Along with unit operations, unit processes constitute a process operation. Unit processes (such as nitration and oxidation) involve the conversion of material by biochemical, thermochemical and other means. Chemical engineers responsible for these are called process engineers.[33]

Transport phenomena

Transport phenomena occur frequently in industrial problems. These include fluid dynamics, heat transfer and mass transfer, which mainly concern momentum transfer, energy transfer and transport of chemical species respectively. Basic equations for describing the three transport phenomena in the macroscopic, microscopic and molecular levels are very similar. Thus, understanding transport phenomena requires thorough understanding of mathematics.[34]

Applications and practice

Two computer flat screens showing a plant process management application
Chemical engineers use computers to manage automated systems in plants.[35]

Chemical engineers "develop economic ways of using materials and energy"[36] as opposed to chemists who are more interested in the basic composition of materials and synthesizing products from such. Chemical engineers use chemistry and engineering to turn raw materials into usable products, such as medicine, petrochemicals and plastics. They are also involved in waste management and research. Both applied and research facets make extensive use of computers.[35]

A chemical engineer may be involved in industry or university research where he or she is tasked in designing and performing experiments to create new and better ways of production, controlling pollution, conserving resources and making these processes safer. He/she may be involved in designing and constructing plants as a project engineer. In this field, the chemical engineer uses their knowledge in selecting plant equipment and the optimum method of production to minimize costs and increase profitability. After its construction, he/she may help in upgrading its equipment. He/she may also be involved in its daily operations.[37]

Related fields and topics

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

See also


  1. ^ From Petroleum to Penicillin. The First Hundred Years of Modern Chemical Engineering: 1859–1959. – Burnett, J. N.
  2. ^ Cohen 1996, p. 172.
  3. ^ Cohen 1996, p. 174.
  4. ^ a b c Reynolds 2001, p. 176.
  5. ^ Cohen 1996, p. 186.
  6. ^ Perkins 2003, p. 20.
  7. ^ Cohen 1996, pp. 172–173.
  8. ^ Cohen 1996, p. 175.
  9. ^ Cohen 1996, p. 178.
  10. ^ Cohen 1996, p. 180.
  11. ^ Cohen 1996, p. 183.
  12. ^ Cohen 1996, p. 184.
  13. ^ Cohen 1996, p. 187.
  14. ^ Cohen 1996, p. 189.
  15. ^ Cohen 1996, p. 190.
  16. ^ Cohen 1996, p. 185.
  17. ^ Ogawa 2007, p. 2.
  18. ^ Perkins 2003, p. 29.
  19. ^ Perkins 2003, p. 30.
  20. ^ Perkins 2003, p. 31.
  21. ^ Reynolds 2001, p. 177.
  22. ^ Perkins 2003, pp. 32–33.
  23. ^ Kim 2002, p. 7S.
  24. ^ Perkins 2003, p. 34.
  25. ^ Kim 2002, p. 8S.
  26. ^ Perkins 2003, p. 35.
  27. ^ Kim 2002, p. 9S.
  28. ^ American Institute of Chemical Engineers 2003a.
  29. ^ Rice University.
  30. ^ Carberry 2001, pp. 1–2.
  31. ^ Towler & Sinnott 2008, pp. 2–3.
  32. ^ McCabe, Smith & Hariott 1993, p. 4.
  33. ^ Silla 2003, pp. 8–9.
  34. ^ Bird, Stewart & Lightfoot 2002, pp. 1–2.
  35. ^ a b Garner 2003, pp. 47–48.
  36. ^ American Institute of Chemical Engineers 2003, Article III.
  37. ^ Garner 2003, pp. 49–50.


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