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What is Chemical Engineering?

By: , Posted on: July 14, 2017

What is chemical engineering? Perhaps it all depends on where you are standing. The following is of course written from where I stand, on the border between the profession and a number of associated academic departments.

If you have spent your career purely in academia, it probably looks as the scope of “chemical engineering “covers the field recognised in international benchmarking studies as “the most important and exciting chemical engineering research being performed internationally.”

Area-1: Engineering Science of Physical Processes

  1. Transport processes
  2. Thermodynamics
  3. Rheology
  4. Separations
  5. Particle technology

Area-2: Engineering Science of Chemical Processes

  1. Catalysis
  2. Kinetics and reaction engineering
  3. Polymerization reaction engineering
  4. Electrochemical processes

Area-3: Engineering Science of Biological Processes

  1. Biocatalysis and protein engineering
  2. Cellular and metabolic engineering
  3. Bioprocess engineering
  4. Systems, computational, and synthetic biology

Area-4: Materials

  1. Polymers
  2. Inorganic and ceramic materials
  3. Composites
  4. Nanostructured materials
  5. Food
  6. Molecular and Interfacial Science and Engineering

Area-5: Biomedical Products and Biomaterials

  1. Drug targeting and delivery systems
  2. Biomaterials
  3. Materials for cell and tissue engineering

Area-6: Energy

  1. Fossil energy extraction and processing
  2. Fossil fuel utilization
  3. Carbon capture, storage and utilisation
  4. Renewable Energy
  5. Fuel Cells and Energy Storage, including Hydrogen
  6. Nuclear Power Engineering (Fission & Fusion)

Area-7: Environmental Impact and Management

  1. Air purification
  2. Water purification
  3. Aerosol science and engineering

Area-8: Process Systems Development and Engineering

  1. Process development and design
  2. Dynamics, control, and operational optimization
  3. Safety and operability of chemical plants
  4. Computational tools, Numerical Methods and information technology
  5. Sensors (Chemical and Biochemical)

Area-9: Sustainability

  1. Social and cultural domain
  2. Environmental domain
  3. Economic domain
  4. General and integrating concepts

If you are a career practitioner, you probably think that chemical engineering is a kind of engineering, rather than an area of research. If you think about such questions at all, (rather than simply practicing your profession) you think that chemical engineering is the profession of designing, constructing and supervising the operation of process plants.

To such a person, some of the things in the above list seem to be related to your profession, some of them do not, and you probably don’t even know what some of them are, a sure sign that they aren’t much to do with your profession.

As one the few practitioner/ academics in the UK, I would divide the above list by proximity to the profession as follows:

Research Potentially Supporting the Profession

Area-1: Engineering Science of Physical Processes

  1. Transport processes
  2. Thermodynamics
  3. Rheology
  4. Separations
  5. Particle technology

Area-2: Engineering Science of Chemical Processes

  1. Catalysis
  2. Kinetics and reaction engineering
  3. Polymerization reaction engineering
  4. Electrochemical processes

Area-6: Energy

  1. Fossil energy extraction and processing
  2. Fossil fuel utilization
  3. Renewable Energy
  4. Renewable Energy
  5. Fuel Cells and Energy Storage, including Hydrogen
  6. Nuclear Power Engineering (Fission & Fusion)

Area-7: Environmental Impact and Management

  1. Air purification
  2. Water purification
  3. Aerosol science and engineering

Area-8: Process Systems Development and Engineering

  1. Process development and design
  2. Dynamics, control, and operational optimization
  3. Safety and operability of chemical plants
  4. Computational tools, Numerical Methods and information technology
  5. Sensors (Chemical and Biochemical)

Research In Other Fields

Area-4: Materials

  1. Polymers
  2. Inorganic and ceramic materials
  3. Composites
  4. Nanostructured materials
  5. Food
  6. Molecular and Interfacial Science and Engineering

These are materials science

Area-5: Biomedical Products and Biomaterials

  1. Drug targeting and delivery systems
  2. Biomaterials
  3. Materials for cell and tissue engineering

These are biomedical engineering

Area-9: Sustainability

  1. Social and cultural domain
  2. Environmental domain
  3. Economic domain
  4. General and integrating concepts

These are humanities research

Area-3: Engineering Science of Biological Processes

  1. Biocatalysis and protein engineering
  2. Cellular and metabolic engineering
  3. Systems, computational, and synthetic biology

These are not the engineering science of biological processes, because engineering science studies engineered artefacts. These are natural science, not engineering science.

There is of course nothing wrong with research into other areas, but as I discuss in the linked article below, the tendency of academics to teach their research causes problems if their research isn’t to do with the degree they teach on.

If we allow the idea that there might be such a thing as chemical engineering research, such research would need in my opinion to be research into one of the areas supporting the profession of chemical engineering to call itself academic chemical engineering.

If we do not draw this distinction, complete confusion can result. If research into materials science, biology, biomedical engineering and humanities (and don’t even get me started on things like 3D printing drones!) is chemical engineering research, what isn’t?.

Read more articles from Sean Moran, The Voice of Chemical Engineering

About the author

sean moranProfessor Sean Moran is a Chartered Chemical Engineer with over twenty years’ experience in process design, commissioning and troubleshooting and is regarded as the ‘voice of chemical engineering’. He started his career with international process engineering contractors and worked worldwide on water treatment projects before setting up his own consultancy in 1996, specializing in process and hydraulic design, commissioning and troubleshooting of industrial effluent and water treatment plants.

Whilst Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham, he co-ordinated the design teaching program for chemical engineering students. Professor Moran’s university work focused on increasing industrial relevance in teaching, with a particular emphasis on process design, safety and employability.

Connect with Sean on LinkedIn here, check out his Facebook page here and stay up-to-date on his thoughts, research and practice at his personal blog here.

Sean’s latest books are available to order on the Elsevier Store. Use discount code STC317 at checkout and save up to 30% on your very own copy!

 

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Chemical Engineering

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