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What is Chemical Engineering?

What is Chemical and Process Engineering?

Chemical and Process Engineers are in the business of turning raw materials into finished products utilising stage-to-stage processes in a cost effective manner.

These finished products end up in pharmacies, supermarkets, petrol stations, etc. The design, operation and management of the processes by which these finished products are produced is the domain of the Chemical and Process Engineer.


This site has been developed by the Institution of Chemical Engineers to demonstrate the wide range of careers open to chemical engineers.  If you are a teacher (or not!), look for the "Top Ten Flash Bang Demos".


What does a Chemical and Process Engineer do?

A process can be viewed as a large jigsaw where the jigsaw pieces are known as "unit operations". Typical unit operations include reactors, distillation columns, fermenters, driers, heat exchangers and pumps. The Chemical Engineer selects, designs and integrates unit operations into a process which will achieve the desired conversion of raw materials into a profitable and useful finished product.

Chemical and Process Engineers design, build and run process plants such as those involved in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals, oil refineries and breweries. They may also work in such areas as the manufacture of electronic equipment where many liquid chemicals and gases are utilized during processing.


Where do Chemical and Process Engineers work?

A Chemical Engineer may:

  • Become a consultant engineer where he/she is involved in designing, building and commissioning a process to produce a particular product.
  • Work in an existing process plant where they may be responsible for all aspects of ensuring that the process runs smoothly and optimally.
  • Bring about improvements to unit operations, as a Research Engineer, which will result in more efficient, environmentally friendly and more cost effective processes.
  • Work in non Chemical Engineering roles where their analytical thinking skills are utilised e.g. stock broking and management consultancy.
What is the difference between engineering and science?

Engineers and scientists have a friendly rivalry.  A recent book The Essential Engineer - why science will not solve our global problems by Henry Petroski provides some quotable arguments:

"A scientist studies what is; an engineer creates what never was. By extension, science is the study of what is; engineering is the creation of what never was."

"Science is about knowing; engineering about doing."

"Engineers do not need to imagine the unimaginable; they have to imagine the manageable."

"As engineers, we were going to be in a position to change the world—not just study it."

"It is customary to think of engineering as a part of a trilogy, pure science, applied science, and engineering. It needs emphasis that this trilogy is only one of a triad of trilogies into which engineering fits. The first is pure science, applied science, engineering; the second is economic theory, finance, and engineering; and the third is social relations, industrial relations, engineering. Many engineering problems are as closely allied to social problems as they are to pure science."

Chemical engineers are universal engineers

What’s in a name: chemical – process – biochemical – biopharmaceutical?

Chemical engineering emerged as a separate discipline in the late 1800’s, combining mechanical engineering and chemistry for the developing chemical industry.  All engineers study mathematics and physics, but applying chemistry is limited outside of our discipline.  The term “chemical engineering” was coined to indicate a broadening, rather than a narrowing of the knowledge base.  In Germany, the discipline evolved in a different route, with prominence given to “Verfahrenstechnik” – “process engineering”, hence the later adoption of “process” to describe chemical engineers.  As a branch of engineering, we have constantly extended to address the challenges of technology and society.  In the last 40 years, biology has become more important, with the application of “chemical engineering” to topics such as fermentation (alcohols), waste water treatment (anaerobic digestion, activated sludge processing) and conversion of biomass (bio-refining); “biochemical” has been added to the name.  Finally, all the sciences and maths are applied in the production of pharmaceuticals, so the term “biopharmaceutical” engineering has emerged!  Of all the engineering branches, none is concerned with physics, chemistry and biology in the way “chemical” engineering is.

Teachers resources to explain chemical engineering

See the American Association for the Advancement of Science's pages on "Chemical Engineers and the Things they Do", linked here.

This page last updated 20 Feb 2012.