What is Chemical Engineering?

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Chemical Engineering

Click on each topic below to learn more about the field of Chemical Engineering.

Chemical Engineering is the profession in which knowledge of mathematics, chemistry, and the other natural sciences gained by study, experience, and practice is applied with judgment to develop economic ways of using materials and energy for the benefit of mankind.
Chemical Engineers design chemical plant equipment and devise processes for manufacturing chemicals and products, such as gasoline, synthetic rubber, plastics, detergents, cement, paper, pharmaceutical products, and electronic materials. A background in chemical engineering offers a number of career options:
  • Research: Research engineers work with chemists to develop new products or new ways to make existing products more efficiently.
  • Design: Design engineers create processes that convert a raw material into a final product. Chemists invented the many synthetic fibers we use today, but chemical engineers designed the plants that produce them at an affordable cost.
  • Development: Chemical engineers look for ways to improve new or existing processes. The "greening" of much of the Third World is due to a big reduction in the cost of ammonia production, which made it possible for poorer nations to manufacture this important fertilizer.
  • Production: The manufacture of chemicals requires continuous supervision. Is the product of specified purity? Is the production rate what it should be? Are control instruments performing properly? Is the process as safe as it can be? Production engineers are always answering such questions.
  • Technical Sales: Why isn't our product doing what it is supposed to for our customers? Could our new product be used more economically than current materials? Why did that new paint peel from one house? Sales engineers answer such questions. People skills, as well as technical ability, are very important for these chemical engineers.
  • Management: Many chemical engineers are promoted to management positions. While less involved in technology, they make policy and business decisions, train new engineers, and solve human, rather than technical, problems.
Petroleum, chemical, and pharmaceutical companies have been the traditional employers of chemical engineers. However, increasing numbers of chemical engineers are currently being hired by food, electronics, textile, pulp and paper, rubber, metal, cement, plastic, and biotech industries.
The chemical industry employs a large number of chemical engineers with masters and doctoral degrees for jobs that involve a research component. A doctoral degree is required for an academic position. Graduate research can open the door to a life of enquiry that is intellectually challenging and professionally satisfying.

A chemical engineering undergraduate degree is also a viable "pre-med" option since all the courses required to take the medical entrance (MCAT) are part of a standard chemical engineering bachelors curriculum. About 5-10% of an entering medical school class consists of chemical engineers.

An undergraduate degree in chemical engineering coupled with some industrial experience can be leveraged to attend management school. An MBA can significantly enhance one's chances of career advancement in the chemical industry.

Some chemical engineering majors also choose to go to law school, typically to specialize in patent law. This is a particularly lucrative field in today's technologically advanced society.
NACE Spring 2011 Salary Survey for average starting salaries at the B.S. level:
  Chemical Engineering $66,886
  Computer Science $63,017
  Computer Engineering $60,112
  Electrical Engineering $60,646
  Mechanical Engineering $60,739
  Information Sciences & Systems $56,868
  Civil Engineering $48,178
  Nursing $55,774
  Mathematics $55,300
  Biology $47,760
  Chemistry $38,384