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Chemical Engineering what is it and where is it going?

A. K. Suresh
Professor and Head, Department of Chemical Engineering
I.I.T. Bombay
It is that time of the year again when 17-somethings with dreams in their eyes line up for
admissions to the various professional and degree courses. Unfortunately in our system,
students at the school level do not get enough time or encouragement to find out and
explore their genuine interests, so that their awareness of the various professional careers
is often based on people they know in their small circles of family and friends. Add to
this scenario the ever-present peer pressures and parental expectations, and the courses of
choice are engineering and medicine in spite of a multitude of career options being
actually available. If engineering is the chosen path, a further decision to be made
concerns the branch to opt for. With several sub-specializations of yesteryears emerging
as full-fledged branches at the undergraduate level in recent years, this is by no means a
simple task.
In my several years as a teacher, I have had to indulge formally and informally in
counseling such students with respect to what it means to choose a certain branch of
engineering in terms of (a) the courses of study and (b) career options. There is usually a
degree of awareness about the classical branches of Civil, Mechanical and electrical
engineering, since most families usually have someone from such a background,
although parents and children are often unaware of some of the newer career
options opening up in these classical disciplines. Again, because of the ubiquitous
presence of computers and software professionals, awareness of what Computer
Science and Engineering implies, as a discipline (and in terms of pay packets!), is
usually high. The level of awareness is much less with branches like Metallurgy and
materials, and Chemical engineering. What it means is that someone who ends up
taking these latter branches does so usually because it is what she got given her marks
and position in the merit list of candidates who have applied, and not necessarily because
of any interest. The excitement that comes from finding oneself in an area of ones
choice rather than in an area one is forced to go into, is thus lacking, and many such
students start their studies with a sense of despondency. This is neither good for the
profession nor for the student, because the student is not able to give off her best in
her studies. Gradually this leads to poor performance, which compounds the problem. In
this article, we shall try to provide some insight into the discipline of chemical
engineering, its classical and modern contours, and what it means to be a chemical
engineer in todays world.
So what does a chemical engineer do?
Like all engineering, a chemical engineer also seeks to apply her knowledge and
training in the sciences and the engineering art to provide safe and cost-effective

solutions to technical problems. The primary involvement of a chemical engineer is

with Organized chemical processing, by which is meant the whole sequence of
operations that need to be gone through before a set of raw materials is converted to
a set of products of higher value, in a consistent manner and on a large enough
scale. The operations involved include such processes as transporting the raw
materials from their place of availability to the place of processing, conditioning
them in an appropriate manner so as to facilitate the further processing, carrying
out the process (which normally involves a chemical reaction), separating the
product mixture into desirables and undesirables, packaging the desirables and
transporting them to the market, and disposing of the undesirables in an
environmentally safe manner. Clearly, this list contains several operations, which are
trivial or non-existent if the same chemical is to be made in small quantities in a
laboratory. A tongue-in-cheek definition of a chemical engineer has it that she talks
chemistry to engineers and engineering to chemists, but a translation of a process from
the laboratory to the industry can be quite non-trivial; the Solvay process for Soda ash,
one of the processes that demonstrated the need for specially trained personnel in
engineering chemical processes, had to wait for 60 years before the known
chemistry could be translated to an industrial reality.
The above description of what a chemical engineer does for a living is traditional, and
misses some of the newer areas of involvement, but even this demonstrates something.
While it is true that a degree of comfort with chemistry is of immense help in
chemical engineering, a chemical engineer is much more than an engineer who
manufactures chemicals or a chemist in a factory setting. It has been said that the
name is intended to convey how the discipline is different from others, rather than to
define precisely the scope of the practitioners activity. In fact, the breadth of scientific
and technical knowledge that characterizes a chemical engineers training and
profession has prompted many, including Jack Welch, the legendary ex-CEO of GE,
to regard the chemical engineer as a Universal Engineer. That this is no empty boast
by chemical engineers is borne out by the tremendous contributions chemical engineers
have made over the century or so of existence of this profession. The American Institute
of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) has a compilation of the Ten greatest achievements of
chemical engineers. From splitting the atom and isolating isotopes, to the
petrochemicals and the plastics revolution, to foods, drugs, fibres and environment, the
list contains areas of chemical engineers involvement that impact almost every area of
our lives. And yet, it is the considered view of many, considering the frontier areas of
today that are benefiting from a chemical engineering approach, that evermore significant
achievements of chemical engineers are in the offing!
A little history
Chemical engineering as a discipline is a little over a hundred years old. Historically,
it grew out of mechanical engineering (with which discipline it even now shares a large
domain) towards the last part of the 19th century, in response to the specialized needs of
chemical processing. Before the advent of the industrial revolution (18th century), the
demand for industrial chemicals was largely met by batch processing, which is something

like cooking one added the needed ingredients at the beginning of the process into a
vessel, arranged a sequence of conditions such as temperature, pressure etc., tested the
quality of the product after sufficient time, and if deemed good enough, stopped the
process, opened the vessel and took out the contents, finally subjecting them to further
purification steps in order to get a saleable product answering to a set of specifications. In
such processing, small batch-to-batch variations in quality could not be eliminated, but
the process could be operated with even a limited level of understanding of how
chemistry operated on a large scale. An increase in demand was to be met by an increase
in the vessel size (or by adding additional vessels).
The industrial revolution led to an unprecedented escalation in demand, both with
regard to quantity and quality, for such bulk chemicals as sulfuric acid and soda
ash. This meant two things: one, the size of the activity and the efficiency of operation
had to be enlarged, and two, serious alternatives to batch processing, such as
continuous operation, had to be examined. The need was thus ripe for a species of
engineer who was not only conversant with how machines behaved, but also understood
the whimsicalities of chemical reactions and transfer processes (how substances came
together to react, how the needed conditions such as temperature could be made available
at the site of reactions, etc), and the influence the equipment had on how these processes
operated on the large scale. This need led to the birth of chemical engineering as a
discipline in its own right, distinct from mechanical engineering on the one hand
and industrial chemistry on the other. The set of 12 lectures that George Davis
presented at the Manchester Technical School in 1887 can be regarded as the forerunner
of the course syllabi that later on came to define chemical engineering as a separate
discipline, as it had the seeds of organization that came to be known as the hallmark of
chemical engineering. Shortly afterward, MIT in the US, started the first four-year
programme in chemical engineering called Course X (ten) from its Chemistry
department. Soon other programmes followed, in response to the crying need felt by the
industry to design and operate their chemical plants better. Chemical engineering had
These early programmes married industrial chemistry with mechanical engineering, with
the emphasis most decidedly on engineering. But chemical engineers still needed to
clearly define their activity as something more than a mishmash of chemistry and
engineering. To emphasize their identity and thus help the growth of their
profession, chemical engineers in the US formed themselves into a professional
society, the Americal Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), in 1908. For the other
established branches, there were ready associations in the mind of the common man:
mechanical engineering meant machines, electrical engineering meant circuitry, and civil
engineering meant structures. So what symbolized chemical engineering? The answer,
provided by Arthur D. Little to the President of AIChE, was to emphasize the
approach chemical engineers took to the design and analysis of processes rather than
a process or a product. The concept of Unit operations was thus born, which
emphasizes the underlying unity among seemingly different operations in classifying
these operations. Thus, the principles are the same whether one is concerned about
separating alcohol from water from a fermenter, or separating gasoline from diesel in a

refinery, as long as the basis of separation is generation of a vapour of a different

composition from the liquid. Therefore such separation processes can be studied together
as a Unit operation (in this case called Distillation). The concept has stood the
profession in good stead in its phase of growth, and has even been used in such
diverse contexts as in understanding the way the human body functions.
In the early part of the last century, a parallel concept called Unit Processes was
used to classify reactive processes. Thus oxidations, reductions, alkylations etc.
formed separate unit processes and were studied as such. This was natural
considering the close affinity of chemical engineering to industrial chemistry at its
inception. Gradually however, the subject of chemical reaction engineering has
largely replaced the unit process concept. This subject looks at the entire body of
chemical reactions as having a personality of its own, independent of the particular
chemical species or chemical bonds involved. The latter does contribute to this
personality in no small measure, but to design and operate chemical reactors, knowledge
of characteristics such as rate behaviour, thermodynamics, single or multiphase nature,
etc. are more important. The emergence of chemical reaction engineering as a
discipline truly signaled the severance of the umbilical cord connecting chemical
engineering to industrial chemistry, and served to cement the truly unique character
of this discipline.
The nature of chemical engineering
Like other branches of engineering, chemical engineering stands on the pillars of
physics, mathematics and engineering art, but it is chemical engineering alone that
draws upon the vast and powerful science of chemistry (and now increasingly,
biology) to solve process problems and create process possibilities. Having been born
as an offspring of the marriage between industrial chemistry and mechanical engineering,
it has grown and developed its own unique personality. So much so that its scientific
basis and analytical methodology have themselves acquired a unique character and
form what has come to be known as Chemical Engineering Science.
As it stands today, the discipline has its foundations in material and energy balances,
thermodynamics, transport phenomena, and chemical reaction engineering (the
foundational nature of the last named can be debated, but recognizing it as such makes it
possible to rationalize the ease with which chemical engineers are able to contribute
in such diverse activities as environmental engineering, biotechnology and
microelectronics). The first exploits the conservation laws of matter and energy to draw
broad conclusions about processing options and flowsheet possibilities.
Thermodynamics, through its laws, serves to emphasize conservation of energy, and in
addition provides a directionality to natural processes that makes it possible to distinguish
feasible processes from infeasible ones. The subject of Transport phenomena
represents the next level of unification, after unit operations, of principles
underlying processes. The philosophy dates back to late fifties and the early sixties,
and to a book of the same name written by three authors from the University of
Wisconsin. Here, it is recognized that all unit operations are ultimately based on the

transport of one or more of three entities -momentum, heat and mass and further,
that these three transport processes are themselves analogous in several ways and
therefore can be studied together. Chemical reaction engineering represents a
synthesis of physical chemistry, reaction thermodynamics and rate processes and
examines chemical reactions as they occur in the setting of a chemical reactor. On
these four pillars stands the superstructure containing such other important
structures as the individual unit operations, design and economics, optimization,
instrumentation and process control.
At a more fundamental level, what characterizes the chemical engineers way today
of rationalizing the phenomena of interest to her is the so called continuum
approach, which seeks to derive conclusions on material and phenomenological
behaviour by regarding matter as being continuous, disregarding its essentially discrete
nature. We are able to succeed at this because the phenomena and structures of interest to
todays chemical engineers are mostly at length scales far greater than the size of atoms
or molecules.
The changing face of chemical engineering
A characteristic feature of the discipline of chemical engineering through its
evolution over a century has been its adaptability, and ability to assimilate various
other influences and make them a part of its own personality. In this respect it is
rather like the English language. Through the stages of its evolution, it has gathered in its
wake the tools of mathematical analysis from mathematics and electrical engineering,
incorporating them into a wide body of mathematical methods suitable for optimizing,
automating and controlling chemical processes. Chemical engineers saw the essential
similarity between engineered chemistry and the natural biochemical processes
of life, stepped into and made significant contributions in, biology and medicine.
Again, extension, in different directions, of our approach to understanding fluid
deformation and flow has yielded rich dividends in such diverse areas as polymer
processing and weather prediction. In all their areas of involvement, chemical
engineers have shown an ability to absorb and use the developments in
computational hardware and software to further their ends. At the marketplace, if it
was the industrial revolution that gave rise to its emergence, it was the petroleum
and petrochemicals revolution that spurred on its growth. In the last few decades,
the revolutions in biotechnology, information technology and lately, nanotechnology
are directing the way in which chemical engineering is headed. Although predicting
the future directions of a discipline can be fraught with danger, we shall briefly
examine the winds of change that are blowing at the frontier and interiors of the
discipline to see where it is headed.
The changes that are subtly changing the patterns in the fabric of chemical engineering
are a result, once again, of developments in other areas, with chemical engineers quickly
moving in to claim new territories as they are discovered. Thus, chemical engineers are
becoming interested in phenomena on smaller and smaller length scales. We have
mentioned earlier that the concept of unit operations has made way to a more

fundamental understanding of processes on the basis of the Transport phenomena

approach. This can be understood as moving from an equipment length scale to a
microscopic length scale. Now the transport phenomena approach has come of age
and the next level of unification seems to be on. In the silent revolution that is
gradually sowing the seeds of future chemical engineering, one sees an
abandonment of the continuum hypothesis and an increased interest in phenomena
on the molecular and atomic scale. Considering that upwards of 1020 molecules are
involved in the smallest amounts of bulk material that we handle, understanding bulk
behaviour based on molecular dynamics calls for enormous amounts of computation. It is
only becoming feasible in the recent decades, thanks to advances in computing hardware
and software. While achievements on the whole are still modest, the approach of
molecular modeling and simulations promises much and is here to stay. This is the
more so because the fledgling science of nanomaterials shows that behaviour when
matter is subdivided to nanometer dimensions can only be understood from the
molecular viewpoint. The science promises exciting possibilities in designer materials
for a whole range of applications including human health as it is rapidly maturing to
technology on the marketplace.
On another level, there is an increased appreciation of the fact that one has to not only
look at the trees, but also at the woods, in order to see how the forest functions. The
approach of Systems engineering stresses interconnectivities and network
properties between the units that go to make an organic whole, whether it is a
chemical plant or a living organism. As usual, chemical engineers are ready and
active in assimilating systems engineering concepts in their bread-and-butter
Both the above developments are fuelling chemical engineers foray into frontier areas
such as nanotechnology and biotechnology. In the former, they are active across the
spectrum of activities from synthesis and characterization of nanomaterials to their
applications, whether in new areas like drug delivery or in new developments in old
areas, such as microreactor technology. In the latter, the exploding information on the
genetic code of various simple and evolved organisms is waiting to be exploited in
designing new organisms for new molecules as well as in designing new drugs and
therapies based on novel strategies.
Chemical engineering the road ahead
So where is the road headed? At a recent symposium on this theme held at the Indian
Institute of Science, Bangalore, the speakers noted the fundamental robustness of the
chemical engineers training, based as it is on thermodynamics, transport and
reaction engineering, to see her making important contributions in all the emerging
areas. The universality of this universal engineer, is thus once again coming to the
fore. It is recognized that significant developments of the future will be essentially
interdisciplinary in nature, so chemical engineers will be involved as team members (and
leaders!) of such efforts along with mechanical, electrical, materials and biological
engineers and scientists. The changes brewing today in the chemical engineering pot have

to be understood in terms of some wide-ranging changes that have taken place on the
technological scene. When the classical branches of engineering evolved, technology
essentially preceded understanding (i.e., the science). So also in chemical
engineering, operations such as fermentation and distillation were being exploited
long before they were rationalized on a Unit operations platform. The electronics
revolution on the other hand has been more a science-led revolution. We now see
this happening in chemical engineering too, where new technologies are being based
on the advances made in the sciences.
Among other trends that once again parallel the developments in electronics, one notices
a drive towards miniaturization and packing more and more devices into less and less
space. Combination processes that marry reaction-separation processes into one organic
whole are emerging, as are processes that aim at enormous intensification of rates to
achieve significant reduction in equipment sizes. On the other hand, the peculiarities of
phenomena at smaller and smaller length scales are being sought to be exploited in such
devices as lab-on-a-chip and microreactors. Underlying all these developments are the
heightened concerns for safety and environmental friendliness.
All in all, the challenges are great, and going by the track record, this means that
chemical engineers have a great future ahead!