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Fusion or Confusion?

By: , Posted on: June 7, 2016

confusion darth

The “Chemical Engineering” of academia has very little to do with the profession of that name any more. As we have staffed our universities with people with no experience of the profession, this should come as no surprise to us.

No doubt many readers who consider themselves academic engineers have stopped reading at this point, but for the open-minded few who remain, I’d like to explain what I mean by that.

An undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering no more makes you a chemical engineer than a law degree makes you a barrister.

Neither is there any such thing as a PhD in Chemical Engineering.  All PhDs are in philosophy, irrespective of which department the candidate studies in. A PhD no more makes you a chemical engineer than a PhD in medical research makes you a doctor.

Nor does carrying out research or teaching in a chemical engineering department make you a chemical engineer. It makes you an academic, doing the same job as the academics in the philosophy department.

A real chemical engineer has an accredited postgraduate degree in chemical engineering, and a number of years of experience either designing or operating full-scale process plant. This is the mark I had to hit to become a chartered chemical engineer, aligned with the international accords on what constitutes an engineer.

Engineering is a practical profession. Like other practical professions such as law and medicine, properly calling yourself by the title of the profession requires the acquisition of a combination of academic knowledge, professional experience and training.

Becoming confused about this issue in respect of my profession has had a secondary effect. Academics claim that “chemical engineers” do all kinds of things, when what they mean is one of two things:

“Chemical engineering graduates do all kinds of things” Chemical engineers by my definition do not do all kinds of things. They do chemical engineering. Half of chemical engineering graduates are not able to obtain work as chemical engineers, because we now train twice as many graduates are there are jobs for. In the case of the majority of them who wanted to be engineers, this means that they have failed to become chemical engineers.

“Academics in chemical engineering department s do all kinds of things”. The academics in chemical engineering departments tend largely to follow their original discipline, (unless that was engineering). Nowadays this discipline tends to be chemistry, though there are also geologists, physicists, and a smattering of miscellaneous engineering graduates. The confusion here is magnified by the preference of many grant awarding bodies for “interdisciplinary” research.

If we take people with no experience of the profession, and put them in interdisciplinary teams with philosophers, no wonder they get muddled about what the profession is about.

I have been to Malaysia a few times, home of the original “fusion cuisine”. I have had Indian-influenced food cooked by chefs from a Chinese tradition, and Chinese-influenced food cooked by chefs from an Indian background in Kuala Lumpur, and it is all reliably great. I have had the same dishes cooked in different styles by chefs of different traditions – also great. But when I try many western chefs’ attempts at these dishes, it is clear that they do not really understand either tradition. It is not fusion food, it is confusion food.

This is akin to what has happened in most chemical engineering departments nowadays. If you want to be interdisciplinary, you must first master your discipline.

First you must understand that the profession of chemical engineering is the same as it was back in 1995, when I became chartered. We do the same type of jobs, in much the same way. I know that this is true, as I have interviewed many hundreds of chemical engineers worldwide in order to write my books on process plant design, as well as continuing to practice myself.

Secondly you must understand that most of the research carried out in chemical engineering departments is nothing to do with chemical engineering. Shoehorning it into the curriculum so that you can teach what you know is overloading curricula with irrelevant material.

Thirdly you need to genuinely involve practitioners. We want to help. We do not however want our role to be confined to offering a few amusing anecdotes, or rubber-stamping the often irrelevant curriculum you have already decided to teach. Ask us what chemical engineers do all day, and listen to our answers. Teach some of that.

Read more from Sean, The Voice of Chemical Engineering, on SciTech Connect

process plant layoutThe upcoming 2nd edition of Mecklenburgh’s Process Plant Layout is an in depth guide which begins with general fundamentals and then becomes progressively more detailed; the same progression followed by process designs. It explains how to lay out process equipment and piping relative to each other and to environmental features in a safe, economical way. It is supported with tables of separation distances, rules of thumb, and descriptions of design stage reviews.

Sean Moran has thoroughly re-written this book to reflect advances in technology and best practice; for example changes in how designers balance layout density with cost, operability and safety considerations. The content covers the ‘why’ underlying process design company guidelines, and understanding this will provide a firm foundation for career growth for process design engineers.

Process plant designers in contracting, consultancy, and operating companies at all stages of their careers are the primary audience for this book. The work is also of importance for operations and maintenance staff involved with a new build, to guide them through the plot plan reviews. Project engineers, plant and project managers will also find the work of great interest. It is written in a style suitable for use as a student textbook, as well as a reference for graduate engineers.

About the author

sean moranProfessor 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.


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2 thoughts on “Fusion or Confusion?

  1. of course sir, you are right.. at the point, but the fact is that, there are more students and less jobs, the handful of few getting job in core company acquire the skills you mentioned in just 2-3 years of experience, but just think about rest students, I contradict by saying that if most of the student will not get work in core chemical engineering job, than what’s the use in teaching them, what industry requires, better teach them little inter disciplinary and they get adjusted later on…….

  2. But why not just train less students, if there are no jobs for them? In the UK, it cost £40,000 in course fees alone to complete a chem eng degree. There are in any case no jobs in “interdisciplinary” other than in academia, which has its own oversupply problems.

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