Chemical Engineering Today

Chemical Engineering Today

A chemical engineer is a mathematician, chemist, physicist, environment activist and an innovator - all rolled into one wholesome package.

Chemical Engineers are in the forefront of the cutting edge of modern technology.It was initially developed as an interface between chemistry and mechanical Engineering.The initial focus was on commercializing the product from a chemist's laboratory. As its name implies, it has to do with engineering activities related to production of chemicals. However, chemists numerous are not trained to control processes from running berserk,to optimize plant performance or prevent toxic pollutants emission above the pollution control board norms.Hence companies soon realized that to remain competitive, they needed chemical engineers who could take care of these activities.

Achievement of Chemical Engineers

The major achievements of chemical engineers are listed below :

May be many of us will contribute to this growing list in the near future.

•Crude oil was initially distilled into light and heavy fractions. Through catalytic cracking it is possible to break larger molecules into smaller ones, which serve as building blocks for complex chemicals. It is not surprising since chemical engineers are trained to crack complex problems right from their undergraduate days.

•Chemists discover medicines that kill bacteria on a petri dish. But chemical engineers have been responsible for large scale production of antibiotic such as pencillin and have saved millions of lives. The bacteria must be cursing the chemical engineers at a very small scale.

•Plastics are part and parcel of our everyday lives (pun unintended). They have replaced wood, metal and glass and provide superior strength to weight ratio, chemical resistivity and other properties. Who doesn't know of PVC, Nylon and polyethylene?

•Chemical Engineers developed plastics and continue to do research on polymers so that they can provide the society with superior consumer items. Similarly, sythetic rubber and synthetic fibres exist in the market these days. These are better alternatives to their natural counterparts and have been developed by chemical engineers. New membranes are being developed for desalination and gas separation purposes.

•Does a plant discharge wastes into your nearby river? Call your friendly neighbourhood chemical engineer and he will design a wastewater treatment plant. These days, his nimble brain is exploring novel methods such as ultrasound, photo-catalysts and solar energy to rapidly de-toxify harmful waste. Whenever the environment is polluted the chemical engineer sees "green".

 •Chemical engineers have developed fertilizers, which contribute to increased crop productivity.

•Chemical engineering principles are commonly applied in the modeling of processes occurring in the human body as well as in the development of artificial human lungs, heart and kidneys. Chemical Engineering is a highly multi-disciplinary Profession seamlessly merging with other disciplines such as medicine, bio-chemistry, computer science and material science.

Frontier Areas in Chemical Engineering

• Production of Novel Materials: Chemical engineers design processes involved in the manufacture of ceramic parts of engines, high temperature super-conductors and polymer composites for structural components.

• Biotechnology: The thrust is on improving bio-products , producing chemicals from biomass and exploiting advances in genetic engineering for producing drugs, food and materials. Rather than conventional chemicals production, the challenge is to produce new ones such as fancy proteins, immobilized enzymes and secondary metabolites.

• Solid Waste Treatment: Chemical engineers will treat landfills, remedy contaminated sites, design alternative techniques such as incineration, biological decomposition and recycling. While conventional chemical processes have reactants entering with well defined compositions, waste treatment processes must handle feeds of varying and undefined compositions.

• Pollution Control: With increasing pollution control laws, chemical engineers work towards eliminating pollution at source by recycling intermediate products, redesign chemical reactors or even re-engineer entire processes. Chemical engineers being ambitious aspire for zero emissions.

• Chemical Vapor Deposition: Uniform and very thin coating of wafer thin chips used in computers with silicon conducting semi conducting materials. The reactions occur in the vapor phase. The challenges are to identify vapor based reactions that can lead to formation of thin films, improve reactor design and conditions of operation.

• Catalysis: Catalysts improve the rate of chemical reaction. The challenges are to synthesize new catalysts with improved selectivity, activity and mechanical properties.

Areas of Employment for Chemical Engineers

Graduating students find employment in Oil companies, project management and consultation firms, industrial research and development organizations, manufacturers of consumer goods such as paint, tobacco, soap, detergents and fast foods. Many opportunities are available in biotechnology, material science and pollution control. Many chemical engineers also successfully move into the software profession. Quite a few students pursue higher studies abroad and high percentage of them return to India to pursue research and teaching at the institutes of National Importance.
Courtesy: IIT Madras