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. As well as 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. 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:
- 1805 – John Dalton published Atomic Weights, allowing chemical equations to be balanced and the basis for chemical engineering mass balances.
- 1882 – a course in “Chemical Technology” is offered at University College, London
- 1883 – Osborne Reynolds defines the dimensionless group for fluid flow, leading to practical scale-up and understanding of flow, heat and mass transfer
- 1885 – Henry E. Armstrong offers a course in “chemical engineering” at Central College (later Imperial College, London).
- 1888 – Lewis M. Norton starts a new curriculum at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): Course X, Chemical Engineering
- 1889 – Rose Polytechnic Institute awards the first bachelor’s of science in chemical engineering in the US.
- 1891 – MIT awards a bachelor’s of science in chemical engineering to William Page Bryant and six other candidates.
- 1892 – A bachelor’s program in chemical engineering is established at the University of Pennsylvania.
- 1901 – George E. Davis produces the Handbook of Chemical Engineering
- 1905 – the University of Wisconsin awards the first Ph.D. in chemical engineering to Oliver Patterson Watts.
- 1908 – the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) is founded.
- 1922 – the UK Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) is founded.
- 1942 – Hilda Derrick, first female student member of the IChemE.
Chemical engineering is applied in the manufacture of 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, 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.
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.
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.
What has been described is a batch process. It will probably be modified to operate continuously, particularly if large amounts of the product are required. Efforts will be made to reduce the amount of energy used and to minimize waste.
Chemical engineers are aiming for the most economical process. 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 reaction, 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 which apply these laws to whole plants, unit operations or discrete parts of equipment. In doing so, chemical engineers 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.
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.