Chemical engineering is a branch of engineering that deals with the production of chemicals and the manufacture of products via chemical processes. A chemical engineer designs equipment, systems, and processes for refining raw materials, and for compounding, mixing, and processing of industrial chemicals to fabricate valuable products. Chemical engineers work principally in the chemical industry in the conversion of basic raw materials in various products and also deal with the operation of plants and equipment. They apply chemical engineering principles in any of its practical applications.
The applications include designing, manufacturing, and operating plants and machinery in industrial and chemical processes, and developing new or adapted chemical substances for products that range from foods and beverages to pharmaceutical ingredients and cleaners. If this sounds like the career you would like to pursue, you might be interested in knowing how you will be paid and your duties and responsibilities. This article highlights the job description of chemical engineers, their educational and certification requirements, and the salary and job outlook information.
Chemical Engineer Job Description
Chemical engineers apply and use the principles of biology, physics, chemistry, and math in solving problems that involve the production and use of chemicals, food, and drugs among other products. They typically design the process involved in the production of these products and the equipment for large-scale manufacturing.
These engineers also plan and test production methods and byproduct treatments, and direct facility operations. They also develop new technologies, such as hydrogen power, nanotechnology, and fuel cells. Besides, they work in fields partially or wholly derived from the discipline, such as polymer engineering, materials science, and biomedical engineering.
Historically, the engineers have been primarily tasked with process engineering, which is generally divided into separation processes and chemical reaction engineering. However, the modern discipline encompasses more than just process engineering. This is because a chemical engineer can be involved in developing and producing a diverse range of products, and commodity and specialty chemicals. The products include high-performance materials needed in automotive, aerospace, electronics, biomedical, military, and environmental applications.
These materials include:
- Ultra-strong fibers, adhesives, and composites for automobiles
- Gels for medical applications
- Bio-compatible materials used in prosthetics and implants
- Spectroscopy and optical products for optoelectronic devices
- Films with special dielectrics
Sometimes, chemical engineering is associated with biological and biomedical projects such as understanding proteins (biopolymers) and mapping the human genome.
Duties and Responsibilities
- Evaluating equipment and processes so they ensure compliance with environmental and safety regulations
- Conducting research for the development of new and improved manufacturing and chemical processes
- Designing and planning the layout of equipment
- Developing processes that can separate components, gases, and liquids
- Developing processes for the generation of electrical currents or controlled chemical processes
- Estimating the production costs for management
- Conducting tests and monitoring the performance of chemical and industrial processes in the entire production process
- Establishing essential safety procedures that should be applied when working with dangerous chemicals
- Troubleshooting problems with manufacturing processes
Some engineers, commonly referred to as process engineers, specialize in a particular process, such as oxidation and polymerization. Oxidation is the reaction of oxygen with chemicals to make other complex chemicals. Polymerization entails the making of resins and plastics.
Other chemical engineers specialize in a particular field, such as nanomaterials (these are extremely small substances) or biological engineering, and others specialize in the fabrication of specific products. Chemical engineers are also involved in conducting research in life sciences and biotechnology.
According to the BLS, chemical engineers held about 32,700 jobs in 2016. The top employers included:
- Engineering services: about 13% of the total jobs
- Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences: about 9% of the total jobs
- Petroleum and coal products manufacturing: about 6% of the total jobs
- Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing: about 6% of the total jobs
- Wholesale trade: about 4% of the total jobs
They mostly work in laboratories and offices, but may spend time at industrial plants and refineries, where they direct or monitor operations or solve on-site problems with chemical and industrial equipment. They should work with other professionals involved in the design of other systems and with mechanics or technicians who put their designs into practice.
In most instances, chemical engineers are exposed to health and safety hazards when handling certain chemicals or plant equipment, but injuries can be avoided if proper procedures are followed. Pertaining to work schedules, most engineers work full time. Sometimes, they may have to work additional hours so they meet production targets and design standards or to troubleshoot problems with manufacturing processes. Approximately 2 out of 5 engineers worked over 40 hours weekly in 2016.
- Analytical skills
- Problem-solving skills
- Math skills
- Interpersonal; skills
Educational and Certification Requirements
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Chemical engineers should have a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering or a related field. Employers prefer hiring engineers who have practical experience, and so internships and co-op programs where students earn college credits and experience are helpful.
Programs typically take about four years and entail a combination of classwork, laboratory, and field studies. High school students who want to pursue this career benefit from taking science courses including biology, physics, and chemistry. They should also take math courses such as calculus, trigonometry, and algebra. In some universities, students are allowed to enroll in a 5-year engineering program that leads to the acquisition of both bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Studying up to the Ph.D. level allows engineers to work in research and development, but can also work as a university professor.
Some institutions may offer internships or co-op programs in partnership with the industry where students gain practical experience as they complete their education. You should ensure that the program you enroll in is accredited by ABET. Most of the programs entail the application of sciences to the design, analysis, and control of chemical, biological, and physical processes.
Licenses and Certifications
Licensure is not common compared to other engineering professionals. It is not required for entry-level positions. Engineering (PE) license is vital, especially if you want to advance your career to higher levels of independence and leadership. Licensed chemical engineers are known as professional engineers (PEs), and can oversee other engineers, sign off on projects, and provide public services. State licensure requires you to have graduated from an ABET-accredited program, passed the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam, amassed work experience of about four years, and passed the PE exam.
Salary and Job Outlook
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According to the BLS, the median annual salary of chemical engineers was about $102,160 in May 2017. The lowest 10% earned less than $62,230 but the highest 10% earned more than $169,080.
The average pay in top industries as of May 2017 was:
- Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences: approximately $107,250
- Petroleum and coal products manufacturing: approximately $107,050
- Engineering services: approximately $106,740
- Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing: approximately $97,810
- Wholesale trade: approximately $92,400
According to the BLS, there were about 32,700 jobs for chemical engineers in 2016. The jobs are anticipated to grow by about 8% between 2016 and 2026, which is about as fast as the average for all occupations. This means that additional 2,500 jobs will be created in the same period.
The demand for the engineers depends on the demands of various manufacturing industries. The ability to stay on the forefront of new and emerging technologies will be vital for you to get employed.
Most chemical engineers work in industries whose products are highly sought by many manufacturers. The increase in availability of domestic natural gas will increase the manufacturing potential and more employment opportunities. Most of them will migrate to dynamic fields such as alternative energies, nanotechnology, and biotechnology, but most growth will be in the manufacturing sector.
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Chemical engineers apply the principles of biology, physics, chemistry, and math in solving problems that involve the production and use of chemicals, food, and drugs among other products. They develop and produce a diverse range of products including high-performance materials.
In most instances, they work in laboratories and offices but may spend time at industrial plants and refineries, where they direct or monitor operations or solve on-site problems. They are mostly exposed to health and safety hazards when handling certain chemicals or plant equipment, but injuries can be avoided if proper procedures are followed. Vital qualities include analytical, problem-solving, math, and interpersonal skills, as well as creativity and ingenuity.
To become one, you must earn a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering or a related field. Employers prefer hiring engineers with practical experience. Licensure is not common compared to other engineering professionals and is not needed for entry-level positions. PE license, however, is vital especially if you want to advance your career to higher levels of independence and leadership.
The median annual salary is about $102,160, and jobs are anticipated to grow by about 8% between 2016 and 2026. We hope that this article has adequately addressed the job description of chemical engineers, the educational and certification requirements, as well as the salary and job outlook.