A chemical engineer works with the ideas and design process in many different areas where materials are being manufactured, invented, transformed, or transported. Sometimes, chemical engineers are called "universal engineers" because their knowledge base and abilities are so broad. They have all the basic engineering training in math and physics as well as an in-depth mastery of chemistry and biology.
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Many chemical engineers work in manufacturing, designing the machines and plants. It is their job to ensure that the processes run smoothly and in the most economical manner possible. Oftentimes, these types of jobs have the title of "process engineer." Chemical engineers are behind the creation and manufacturing of an unimaginable amount of products, such as plastics, paper, dyes, medicines, polymers, fertilizers, petrochemicals, and even many foods.
Energy and oil industries have always needed chemical engineers, but job opportunities are growing even more in these fields. The demand for increased energy efficiency and alternative energy sources is keeping many chemical engineers busy at work.
Another growing field for chemical engineers is environmental engineering. Whether they are working on ways to clean up or prevent pollution, safely dispose of toxic waste, or manage a sewage treatment plant, there is no shortage of opportunities for a chemical engineer to work in environmental science. In fact, many companies hire chemical engineers to fill their positions in environmental engineering.
Careers in biotechnology and pharmaceuticals are also very abundant for chemical engineers. They are instrumental in creating and manufacturing drugs as well as medical and surgical supplies -- everything from catheters to artificial kidneys or prosthetics.
Chemical engineering often overlaps with many other fields. For example, chemical engineers are needed for the design and manufacture of computer parts and other electronics, and so they would work closely with electronics engineers.
Nanotechnology is another growing field where chemical engineers work. This could be anything from using nanoparticles to purify contaminated groundwater to working with DNA for gene or stem cell therapies.
These are just a few of the most common examples of what a chemical engineer may do for a career. Chances are if something is man-made, a chemical engineer had something to do with it.
Most jobs in chemical engineering require a minimum of a bachelor's degree. In the US and Canada, earning a BS or BA in chemical engineering will require intensive courses in math, physics, chemistry, biochemistry, and other related subjects. The engineering degrees awarded in other countries may have other names; for example, in the UK, students may pursue a Bachelor of Engineering (BEng Hons) or a more advanced Master of Engineering (MEng Hons) degree. However, the material that is studied is the same.
To become licensed as an engineer, university graduates may take the Fundamentals of Engineering exam, which is given by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES). In the US, each state also has its own licensing exam for engineers who are going to work in the public sector.
Continuing on to earn a master's or doctorate degree is one way to increase job opportunities, earning power, and to specialize in an area of interest. Just a few areas of specialization for chemical engineers are biochemical engineering, biotechnology, polymers, polymer processing, materials engineering, agriculture, or pollution control.
Those considering a career as a chemical engineer need to be very science-minded and have good analytical, planning, and problem solving skills. An element of creativity is important for being able to come up with new solutions to problems. They must thrive on intellectual challenges. The ability to work both independently and as part of a team on projects is very important. Many engineers must read and write reports and papers, so written communication skills are also important.
With so many different industries employing chemical engineers, there is a wide variety of workplace environments. Large corporations, government entities, and small firms all need chemical engineers. However, most chemical engineers do work in larger companies as part of a team. About three-fourths of chemical engineers work in the manufacturing industries in some capacity.
Chemical engineers may work in laboratories or manufacturing plants, while some are outside during field work. Many chemical engineers must wear protective equipment, like goggles and helmets, when working around large industrial manufacturing equipment. This equipment is also outdoors sometimes, and may require the engineer to be outside in adverse weather conditions. Other chemical engineers may spend their whole work day in the lab. Some engineers have the advantage of working in different areas, such as designing projects on the computer, testing them in the lab, and then moving on to the manufacturing phase. Seeing a project through completion can be a very satisfying part of the career.
Of the engineering professions, chemical engineers are often some of the highest paid. The average annual salary is $83,000. Entry level salaries start around $43,000. Salaries in Europe are quite comparable, starting around £20,000, and around £40,000 for senior engineers with experience. Engineers with graduate degrees have the potential to earn much higher salaries.