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Inside You? by engineering
educator Celeste Baine.
The BASF corporation used to advertise “We don’t make the things you use. We make them better.” DuPont would advertise “Better Living Through Chemistry”. These are just commercial slogans, but in many ways they define the traditional role of the chemical engineer (ChE).
Chemical engineers apply their knowledge of chemistry, physics, and engineering techniques to create, design, and improve processes to manufacture materials we encounter every day, including:
- Polymers & Plastics
- Consumer Products
Unfortunately for public awareness, most of what emerges from chemical manufacturing facilities isn’t of immediate use to the consumer; instead, products are typically intermediates later used to produce consumer goods.
For example, a chemical engineer might be involved in designing an improved process for manufacturing PETE (polyethylene terephthalate) polymer. A ChE is also likely the manager of the plant that produces the polymer. The product that emerges from the plant will look like white or gray sand or gravel which is then shipped to another manufacturer. It is only in this next step that this polymer resin is molded into everyday products, most prominently soft drink bottles (with recycling number 1). So, even though the bottles wouldn’t exist without chemical engineers, most people remain unaware of the ChE’s role.
A chemical engineer’s education has special emphases on optimizing and controlling chemical reactions and on separation of mixtures. These skills apply to more than just manufacturing. Our environment and our human bodies are complex systems built upon chemical processes, so the chemical engineering skill set offers insight and opportunities to improve our environment and our lives. A ChE studying a human kidney would recognize it as a membrane separation and so would understand its principles. This understanding has been critical in the development of modern dialysis machines and artificial organs.
Chemical engineering degrees are flexible. The practical, quantitative,
problem-solving skills learned may be applied to a wide array of
careers. Careers in chemical engineering are rewarding. Surveys of
starting salaries almost always list ChEs near the top. Polls of
working chemical engineers indicate a high degree of job satisfaction.
Biochemical engineering supplements the traditional ChE skills with additional study of biology, microbiology, and biochemistry. This knowledge enables the extension of chemical engineering principles to applications in biotechnology including commercial enzymes, food and food additives, pharmaceuticals, and biofuels. These processes use living cells in biochemical reactors, called “fermentors”, to conduct the manufacturing. The resulting mixtures are extremely complex, so bioseparations are one of the most important – and expensive – parts of biotech processes. Reactors and separations are the bedrock of chemical engineering, so it should be clear why ChEs are important in the broad application of biotechnology.