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What is a Chemical Engineer?

A Chemical Engineer is a specialized type of Engineer. Also known as: Chemical Process Engineer.

A chemical engineer is someone who influences various areas of technology by conceptualizing and designing processes for producing, transforming and transporting materials. Before a chemical engineer brings these materials to full scale production, there is plenty of experimentation in the laboratory.

Sometimes, chemical engineers are called "universal engineers" because their knowledge base and abilities are so broad. They have all the basic engineering training in mathematics and physics as well as an in-depth mastery of chemistry and biology.

How to Become a Chemical Engineer

What does a Chemical Engineer do?

Many chemical engineers work in manufacturing, designing 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 creations and manufacturing of a wide range 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 other job opportunities are growing even more. The demand for increased energy efficient and alternative energy sources is keeping chemical engineers with plenty of work to do.

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 designing and manufacturing computer parts and other electronics, and they work closely with electronic 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.

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How to become a Chemical Engineer

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 mathematics, 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.

What is the workplace of a Chemical Engineer like?

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 doing field work. Many chemical engineers must wear protective equipment, like goggles and helmets when working around large industrial manufacturing equipment. This equipment is outdoors sometimes, and may require the engineer to be 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 to completion can be a very satisfying part of the career.

What is the difference between a degree in chemical engineering and a degree in chemistry?

A bachelor's degree in chemical engineering is for students who are interested in getting an engineering degree in chemical applications (as opposed to theoretical foundations). It focuses on certain aspects of math and physics, such as fluid dynamics, distillation, absorption, leeching and membrane separation, heat transfer, and equipment design. The focus for a chemical engineer is the development of new materials and/or substances, and turning new ideas and discoveries into useful products and materials for humans. Graduates are able to work in entry-level positions in engineering, or can continue their education by pursuing a master's or doctorate degree.

Chemistry looks at the analytical, organic, inorganic, and biochemistry side of chemistry. A chemist will focus on materials and processes, testing theories, analyzing substances, and measuring the physical properties of substances. A chemistry graduate can get a job as a research assistant in a chemistry lab, or continue on with their education by getting a master's or doctorate degree. Medical school is also an option.

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What is the difference between a chemical engineer and a materials scientist?

Chemical engineers will apply chemistry knowledge to the process of converting chemicals or raw materials into viable products for human use. They run large scale chemical reactions, and focus on processes to get molecules to react with one another at scale and with a desired process yield.

A materials scientist translates between what the chemists and physicists are working on, to what the engineering researchers are working on. They are responsible for the research, design, and development of materials, and will focus on how the physical structure of a certain material will affect the property of the material. They are essentially applied condensed matter physicists.

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What is some good advice for chemical engineering students?

Get to know your professors, and develop a relationship with them so that you are comfortable enough to approach them when you need help or need questions answered. Always try to make an effort to solve a problem on your own first. If you are still struggling, take advantage of their knowledge and willingness to help.

Start building your network as early as you can. Your network can be your professors, your peers, or people you've met at extracurricular lectures, networking events, workshops, or internships.

One limitation of education is that a lot of time is spent learning theory, but very little time is spent getting experience on how things really work in the outside world. An excellent way to get experience and meet people is to seek out summer internship opportunities early on, and use your internships to build a portfolio of products/projects. Prospective employers will always view a graduate more seriously if they have had previous work experience.

Along with experience, make sure your science and math skills are well developed, as well as your writing and presentation skills. You will need to work well with teams, both at school and when employed, so patience and listening skills that are developed early on will come in handy. Having said that, you still need to be assertive, be able to get your point across in a respectable way, and be able to work on problem solving with others.

What is it like being a chemical engineer?

Chemical engineers solve problems that involve the production or use of chemicals and other products by applying the principles of chemistry. They design processes and equipment for chemical manufacturing, and test methods for manufacturing products.

Some specialize in a particular chemical process, such as polymerization, or oxidation. Others may specialize in a particular field. Each area of chemical engineering can be quite different from another, and can vary in the tasks and responsibilities involved. It's important to think about what area you can see yourself in, as well as the type of environment you can see yourself working in. The options are endless.

For instance, a chemical engineer can work in healthcare, construction, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, petrochemicals, food processing, biotechnology, design, polymers, environmental health and safety, pulp and paper, and specialty chemicals. Their work environment can be in a lab, a plant, an office building, a construction site, or an oil and gas site. Some chemical engineers travel extensively, while others don't travel at all.

Regardless of the field or specialization you choose to work in, there is definite work satisfaction that comes from working with the processes of nature to meet the needs of humans and society.

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Further Reading

  • Chemical Engineering www.careercornerstone.org

    All chemical engineers do not wear hard hats, nor do they work solely in chemical plants. Spend some time exploring the many possibilities available to chemical engineers.

  • Chemical Engineer Interview myfootpath.com

    Dr. Joe Cramer has been a chemical engineer for nearly 45 years, and currently he is the Director Emeritus of technical programming for the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE).

  • A Day In The Life Of A Chemical Engineer inside.edison.com

    Chemical Engineer Venus Kaur began her career at Southern California Edison seven years ago as an assistant nuclear chemical technician at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

  • Chemical Engineering www.engineeryourlife.org

    Anastasia Venable's Dream Job

  • Chemical Engineers' Median Salary Soars To $120,000 www.chron.com

    Salaries for chemical engineers in the United States have surged in just two years as companies seek expertise to run plants they're building or expanding to take advantage of cheap natural gas.

  • Chemical Engineer chemistry.about.com

    Chemical engineers apply the principles of chemical engineering to identify and solve technical problems. Chemical engineers work mainly within the chemical and petrochemical industries.

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