What makes a Chemical Engineer so special, one might ask.  Well – aside from the fact that I am one, I think that chemical engineering is a pretty unique profession, and an outstanding field of study.  Why do I think so?  Well….

 1 – Chemical engineering goes back quite a ways, and mirrors the expansion of the world technical economy.  Back in the late 1800’s, what chemical engineers did was called “industrial chemistry” and was an applications sub-set of chemistry.  The name was pretty descriptive – the application of chemistry principles to an industrial setting.  Early industrial chemists designed processes to create “soda ash” (sodium carbonate), “caustic soda” (sodium hydroxide), “potash” (potassium derived chemicals), and soaps derived from these materials. 

 Chemical engineering was first established as a profession in the United Kingdom when the first chemical engineering course was given at the University of Manchester in 1887.  In 1891, the Department of Chemistry at MIT granted seven Bachelor’s degrees for Chemical Engineering, the first of their kind to be bestowed.  The course was a marriage of mechanical engineering with Industrial Chemistry. The American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) was founded in 1908.

 2 – Chemical Engineering is adaptable and flexible.  The type of chemical engineering I studied in the late 1960’s – early 1970’s (with my trusty K&E Log Log Decitrig slide rule, which I still have) was Process Engineering.  It was expected that Chem E’s would eventually go to work for one of larger chemical/petrochemical companies of the day (DuPont, Union Carbide, Dow, Rohm and Haas, Allied, Stauffer, etc.) and use their skills in running large chemical plants.  Chemical Engineers coming out of school now are hardly recognizable.  The old Process Industries have moved off-shore, and most courses of study are more reflective of the BioTech or Pharma fields.  The principles are the same, but the applications are much different. 

Along with these changes, one can also cite the advancement of women in the field.  In the 1960’s, The Cooper Union Engineering School consisted of about 525 aspiring engineers, 5 of which were woman (1%) for which CU had graciously provided one Rest Room in the six story building. The women were regarded with great skepticism by the almost all male faculty (1 professor was a woman), who were products of 1940’s engineering schools.  They regarded Humanities courses with the same skepticism (the old joke was “Four years ago, I couldn’t spell “Engineer”.  Now I are one.), and indeed, many Profs dressed like it was still 1945.  By contrast, this year, the two candidates for President of the AIChE are women, and the gender mix overall has increased to 20% women…not great, but better. 

3 – Chemical Engineering avoids niches and is a great generalist course of study.  The first thing that most aspiring Chem Engineers learn is that “Chemical Engineering is not Chemistry”.  In spite of its roots in applied chemistry, much of chemical engineering is rooted in separations and purification of a final product.  Reaction engineering, which covers the actual product formation, is a small part of the overall problem.  Typically, the more challenging part of the production problem is separating the crude product to the desired purity at a price the end-user can afford.  But – because of the technology needed to crack this issue, chemical engineering principles are equally valid for sodium acetate, polystyrene, and penicillin manufacture – final separation methods are the key.

4 – You can make a living.  A Bachelor’s Degree doesn’t get you much these days generally, but a chemical engineering degree buys you an excellent income.  But – your days in engineering school (to say nothing of your evenings and week-ends) will be filled with course work and homework.  There’s a reason why all the characters in “Animal House” were not engineering majors…it would have been too boring…..

So…as I hope I have made clear – chemical engineering has an outstanding pedigree, a rigorous yet flexible course of study, and the potential for a good life style — if you are willing to put in the time.

JTS – 11/23/16

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