Chemical engineering

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Chemical engineers design, construct and operate plants

Chemical engineering is the branch of engineering that deals with the application of physical science (e.g. chemistry and physics), with mathematics, to the process of converting raw materials or chemicals into more useful or valuable forms. In addition to producing useful materials, chemical engineering is also concerned with pioneering valuable new materials and techniques, an important form of research and development. A person employed in this field is called a chemical engineer.

Chemical engineering largely involves the design and maintenance of chemical processes for large-scale manufacture. Chemical engineers in this branch are usually employed under the title of process engineer. The development of the large-scale processes characteristic of industrialized economies is a feat of chemical engineering, not chemistry. Indeed, chemical engineers are responsible for the availability of the modern high-quality materials that are essential for running an industrial economy.

Chemical Engineering Timeline

In 1824, French physicist Sadi Carnot, in his “On the Motive Power of Fire”, was the first to study the thermodynamics of combustion reactions in steam engines. In the 1850s, German physicist Rudolf Clausius began to apply the principles developed by Carnot to chemicals systems at the atomic to molecular scale.[1] During the years 1873 to 1876 at Yale University, American mathematical physicist Josiah Willard Gibbs, the first to be awarded a Ph.D. in engineering in the U.S., in a series of three papers, developed a mathematical-based, graphical methodology, for the study of chemical systems using the thermodynamics of Clausius. In 1882, German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, published a founding thermodynamics paper, similar to Gibbs, but with more of an electro-chemical basis, in which he showed that measure of chemical affinity, i.e. the “force” of chemical reactions, is determined by the measure of the free energy of the reaction process. Following these early developments, the new science of chemical engineering began to develop. The following timeline shows some of the key steps in the development of the science of chemical engineering:[2]


Chemical engineering is applied in the manufacture of a wide variety of products. The chemical industry proper manufactures inorganic and organic industrial chemicals, ceramics, fuels and petrochemicals, agrochemicals (fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides), plastics and elastomers, oleochemicals, explosives, detergents and detergent products (soap, shampoo, cleaning fluids), fragrances and flavors, additives, dietary supplements and pharmaceuticals. Closely allied or overlapping disciplines include wood processing, food processing, environmental technology, and the engineering of petroleum, glass, paints and other coatings, inks, sealants and adhesives.


To show the difference between laboratory chemistry and industrial chemical engineering, consider a simple one-step reaction between two reagents R1 and R2 to give a product P and waste W. The reaction may be represented R1 + R2 = P + W. A solvent S and possibly a catalyst C may be required, and it may need to be heated to speed the reaction.

A specific example would be the synthesis of aspirin by the reaction of salicylic acid (R1) with acetic anhydride (R2) in solvent water (S) and in the presence of catalyst phosphoric acid (C). Aspirin is the product P, and acetic acid (W) is also formed.

In the laboratory 5 grams of R1 (a solid) are added to 120 ml of water in a flask. 5 ml of R2 (a liquid) are added plus 0.5 ml of phosphoric acid solution, and the flask is heated in a water bath. The contents are agitated by swirling the flask or with a laboratory stirrer and heated under reflux for about an hour.

The material is allowed to cool down and crystals of aspirin are formed, which may be filtered off, and perhaps recrystallized. A good yield would be 5 to 6 grams. The remaining solution is poured down the sink.

Now consider an industrial process in which we replace grams with tonnes.

Firstly suitable storage (say for two weeks of production) must be provided for the raw materials. In this case R1 is a solid and would be put in a storage silo; R2 is a corrosive liquid, combustible and sensitive to water, so would need a closed tank of resistant material. A means of transport to the reactor must be provided, such as a screw conveyor for the solid R1 and a pump and pipes for liquid R2. Chemical engineers would calculate the sizes and power requirements and specify suitable materials. Similar arrangements must be made for the solvent S and the catalyst C. In this case, water is the solvent, but ordinary tap water would not be good enough, so there will be a separate process to clean the water.

The reactor is now to contain 120 tonnes of water and the other ingredients, so cannot be swirled. An agitator must be designed and its power consumption calculated to give the necessary mixing. Heating and cooling are considered free in the laboratory, but not in industry. The chemical engineers must first calculate the amount of heat to be added and removed, then design suitable methods to do this, perhaps by passing steam through an outer jacket of the vessel to heat. They will probably decide to pump the reacted mixture to another vessel with a cooler, then to a filter. The solid will then go to further equipment to dissolve, crystallize and filter again, giving perhaps 5.5 tonnes of aspirin, which will be dried and placed in suitable storage, which must also be designed. (The drying process uses significant amounts of energy.)

However, there is about 125 tonnes of waste which cannot be just poured down the drain. It will contain some unreacted R1 and about 3 tonnes of W, which must be recovered and recycled. (In this case, W can be converted to R2 in another reactor.) The catalyst may be recovered, or made harmless by a chemical reaction before disposal. Thus there will be another set of equipment to save the cost of wasting chemicals and to protect the environment. Solvents other than water are generally recycled by distillation, but water is also re-used and recycled as far as economically feasible.

This process may run as a batch process, where reactors are filled and emptied discharging their contents through the plant upon completion. Alternatively the process may be run as a continuous process, where the reaction precursors are fed through the plant at a fixed rate. The choice of continuous or batch is dependent upon a combination of reaction kinetics, the desired amount of product and the economics of the plant's operation and would be decided during the design phase of the plant.


Chemical engineers design processes to ensure the most economical operation. This means that the entire production chain must be planned and controlled for costs. A chemical engineer can both simplify and complicate "showcase" reactions for an economic advantage. Using a higher pressure or temperature makes several reactions easier; ammonia, for example, is simply produced from its component elements in a high-pressure reactor. On the other hand, reactions with a low yield can be recycled continuously, which would be complex, arduous work if done by hand in the laboratory. It is not unusual to build 6-step, or even 12-step evaporators to reuse the vaporization energy for an economic advantage. In contrast, laboratory chemists evaporate samples in a single step.

The individual processes used by chemical engineers (eg. distillation or filtration) are called unit operations and consist of chemical reactions, mass-, heat- and momentum- transfer operations. Unit operations are grouped together in various configurations for the purpose of chemical synthesis and/or chemical separation. Some processes are a combination of intertwined transport and separation unit operations, (e.g. reactive distillation).

Three primary physical laws underlying chemical engineering design are conservation of mass, conservation of momentum and conservation of energy. The movement of mass and energy around a chemical process are evaluated using mass balances and energy balances, laws that apply to discrete parts of equipment, unit operations, or an entire plant. In doing so, chemical engineers must also use principles of thermodynamics, reaction kinetics and transport phenomena. The task of performing these balances is now aided by process simulators, which are complex software models (see List of Chemical Process Simulators) that can solve mass and energy balances and usually have built-in modules to simulate a variety of common unit operations.

Modern chemical engineering

The modern discipline of chemical engineering encompasses much more than just process engineering. Chemical engineers are now engaged in the development and production of a diverse range of products, as well as in commodity and specialty chemicals. These products include high performance materials needed for aerospace, automotive, biomedical, electronic, environmental and space and military applications. Examples include ultra-strong fibers, fabrics, adhesives and composites for vehicles, bio-compatible materials for implants and prosthetics, gels for medical applications, pharmaceuticals, and films with special dielectric, optical or spectroscopic properties for opto-electronic devices. Additionally, chemical engineering is often intertwined with biology and biomedical engineering. Many chemical engineers work on biological projects such as understanding biopolymers (proteins) and mapping the human genome.

Related fields and topics

Today, the field of chemical engineering is a diverse one, covering areas from biotechnology and nanotechnology to mineral processing.

See also



  1. Mechanical Theory of Heat – Nine Memoirs on the development of concept of "Entropy" by Rudolf Clausius [1850-1865]
  2. History of Chemical Engineering – at North Carolina State University (and in general).
  3. Glasgow Herald July 18, 1888 and September 5, 1888
  4. N. A. Peppas (1989) One Hundred Years of Chemical Engineering Kluwer ISBN 0792301455
  5. 2007 Indiana Economic Development Corporation Life Sciences Report
  6. Colin Duvall and Sean F, Johnston Scaling Up: The Institution of Chemical Engineers and the Rise of a New Profession Kluwer Academic Publishers (2000)

Further reading

  • Kister, Henry Z. (1992). Distillation Design (1st Edition ed.). McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-07-034909-6.
  • Green, Don W. and Perry, Robert H. (deceased) (1997). Perry's Chemical Engineers' Handbook (7th Edition ed.). McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-07-049841-5.
  • Bird, R.B., Stewart, W.E. and Lightfoot, E.N. (August 2001). Transport Phenomena (Second Edition ed.). John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 0-471-41077-2.
  • McCabe, W., Smith, J. and Harriott, P. (2004). Unit Operations of Chemical Engineering (7th Edition ed.). McGraw Hill. ISBN 0-07-284823-5.
  • Seader, J. D., and Henley, Ernest J. (1998). Separation Process Principles. New York: Wiley. ISBN 0-471-58626-9.
  • Chopey, Nicholas P. (2004). Handbook of Chemical Engineering Calculations (3rdEdition ed.). McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0071362622.
  • Himmelbau, David M. (1996). Basic Principles and Calculations in Chemical Engineering (6th Edition ed.). Prentice-Hall. ISBN 0133057984.
  • Editors: Jacqueline I. Kroschwitz and Arza Seidel (2004). Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology (5th Edition ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Interscience. ISBN 0-471-48810-0.
  • King, C.J. (1980). Separation Processes. McGraw Hill. ISBN 0-07-034612-7. Text "2nd Edition" ignored (help)
  • Coulson J. M. ; Richardson J. F. ; Backhurst J. R. ; Harker J. H. (1991). Chemical engineering. Volume 2 : Particle technology and separation processes. Pergamon Press - New York. xxvi+968pp. Text "2nd Edition" ignored (help)
  • Levenspiel, O.: The Chemical Reactor Omnibook, Osu, Oregon, 1993

External links


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