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What is Chemical Engineering?

As a student interested in engineering, chemistry, and biological methods, you might consider a chemical engineering degree.  Students who pursue this type of degree seek knowledge in nanotechnology and surface science; energy and the environment; biotechnology; systems and process design; and catalysis and reaction engineering.

Chemical engineers are able to design sustainable, safe, and economical equipment for large-scale chemical or biological manufacturing plants. They have contributed to the development of earth-friendly plastics, rapid blood-typing, rechargeable batteries, cleaner sources of energy, vaccines to ward off epidemics, seawater desalination, and much more.

What is a Chemical Engineering Degree?

A chemical engineering degree covers broad areas of engineering, using a combination of chemistry, physics, mathematics, biology, and economics to solve problems involving the production or use of chemicals, foods, drugs, fuels, and other products. Students learn the development, design, and control of processes and products that involve molecular change, as well as the operation of those processes.

This degree prepares students to use, produce, transform, and transport chemicals, materials, and energy efficiently for large-scale manufacturing, as well as to plan and test production methods, byproducts treatment, and direct facility operations. If you are interested in chemical and biological processes and changes, this may be the degree for you.

With a chemical engineering degree, students will be able to:

  • Conduct research to develop new and improved manufacturing processes
  • Establish safety procedures for individuals working with dangerous chemicals
  • Develop processes for separating components of liquids and gases, or for generating electrical currents, by using controlled chemical processes
  • Design and plan equipment layouts
  • Conduct tests and monitor the performance of processes throughout production
  • Troubleshoot problems occurring in manufacturing processes
  • Evaluate equipment and processes to ensure compliance with safety and environmental regulations
  • Estimate production costs for management teams

Salary Outlook for Chemical Engineers

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the chemical engineering field is projected to grow 8% from 2016 to 2026. In 2018, the median pay was $104,910 per year.

Entry-level engineers usually work under the supervision of experienced engineers. In large companies, new engineers also may receive formal training in classrooms or seminars. As junior engineers gain knowledge and experience, they move to more difficult projects with greater independence to develop designs, solve problems, and make decisions.

Eventually, chemical engineers may advance to supervise teams of other engineers and technicians. Some may become managers over architectural and engineering staff. Preparing for management positions usually requires working under the guidance of a more experienced chemical engineer.

With an engineering degree, chemical engineers are able to discuss the technical aspects of products, while assisting in product planning and use.

Careers in Chemical Engineering

Students with a chemical engineering degree work in a wide array of areas, ranging from chemical and energy to pharmaceuticals, textiles, consumer goods, polymers, solid-state and biomedical devices.

Some chemical engineers, who are also known as process engineers, specialize in a particular process, such as oxidation (a reaction of oxygen with chemicals to make other chemicals) or polymerization (the making of plastics and resins). Others specialize in a particular field such as nanomaterials (extremely small substances) or biological engineering, while still others specialize in developing specific products.

Chemical engineers also work in the production of energy, electronics, food, clothing, and paper. They must understand how the manufacturing process affects the environment and the safety of workers and consumers. Chemical engineers also conduct research in the life sciences, biotechnology, and business services, often traveling to plants or worksites both domestically and abroad.

The largest employers of chemical engineers are engineering services; research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences; petroleum and coal products manufacturers; pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturers; and wholesale trades. Major companies that hire chemical engineers include the Kimberly-Clark corporation, Dow Chemical Company, 3M, Merck, Intel Corporation, Cliffs Natural Resources, among others.

Education & Curriculum

Students pursuing a chemical engineering degree have an extensive education in science and math. Undergraduate students usually take a variety of classes per year. Course requirements are divided into three categories: lower-division courses in the major, upper-division courses in the major, and other required courses. Enrollment in some upper-division Chemical Engineering courses requires completion of eight hours of lower-division Chemical Engineering coursework and 11 hours of non-Chemical Engineering coursework in the major, with a grade of C– or better in each course. In addition, each student must complete the university’s core curriculum.

A typical schedule for the four years may look like this:

Year One

  • General Chemistry
  • General Chemistry Lab
  • Intro to Engineering
  • Calculus 1
  • English Comp 1
  • History
  • General Chemistry for Scientists and Engineers II
  • General Chemistry Lab II
  • Intro to Computing for Engineers and Scientists
  • English Comp II
  • Engineering Orientation
  • Calculus II
  • Engineering Physics I

Year Two

  • Principles of Biology and Lab
  • Principles of Chemical Engineering
  • Calculus III
  • Engineering Physics II
  • Organic Chemistry I and Lab
  • Chemical Engineering Progress Assessment I
  • Transport I
  • Chemical Engineering Applications of Mathematical Techniques
  • Thermodynamics
  • Linear Differential Equations

Year Three

  • Organic Chemistry II
  • Phase and Reaction Equilibria
  • Computer-Aided Chemical Engineering
  • Transport II
  • Core Social Science
  • Chemical Engineering Progress Assessment II
  • Chemical Engineering Analysis
  • Chemical Engineering Separations
  • Chemical Reaction Engineering and Lab
  • CHEN Technical Elective I
  • Business Ethics

Year Four

  • Digital Process Control
  • Process Economics and Safety
  • Process Simulation Synthesis and Optimization
  • Chemical Engineering Laboratory II
  • CHEN Technical Elective II
  • Core Literature
  • Process Design Practice
  • Technical Elective 3 or ROTC
  • Technical Elective 4 or ROTC
  • Core Fine Arts
  • Core Social Science

There are a number of universities offering an online chemical engineering degree track. This can be helpful for those interested in programs that may not be in their area. Online programs offer flexible learning options that may have a combination of online and physical classes, or have a virtual-only setting, where students may be more comfortable.

Chemical engineering degree programs should be accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), which ensures high quality standards in college and university programs in the disciplines of applied and natural science, computing, engineering, and engineering technology at the associate, bachelor, and master degree level. Students may research chemical engineering programs listed with ABET to find out more information, prior to contacting the school.

A solid career path, chemical engineering can help you make a contribution both to society and the STEM disciplines as a whole.

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