What exactly is a chemical engineer? Many would say that it is simply a “chemist who builds things” or an “engineer who makes chemicals. However, neither of these statements is completely true. The term “chemical engineer” is not meant to actually describe what it is a chemical engineer does, but to describe what sets it apart from the other branches of engineering: civil, mechanical, and electrical. On average, chemical engineers are numerically the smallest but also the highest paid. It is not a profession the must dwell on the past for comfort and support, for its greatest accomplishments are still yet to come.
Chemical engineering, a prominent and growing career, requires a detailed understanding of the how and why chemical processes work and also how they can be further improved. To develop new improvised methods for these processes to function more useful and economical, a chemical engineer uses theories and laws of chemistry. They are, however, often referred to as the “universal engineer” because they must not only have a broad knowledge of chemistry and physics but also of mechanical and electrical engineering.
The Industrial Revolution sparked a new curiosity and need for chemical engineering. In order for certain industries to sustain growth, the production of chemicals became of great importance, especially sulfuric acid. In attempts to improve the process of making this chemical, much time, money and effort was put into it. By this, the slightest savings led to large profits because of the vast quantities of sulfuric acid consumed by industries (Pafko, “Setting Stage”).
To create the much needed sulfuric acid, a long used and little understood method was used, the lead-chamber method. During this process, one of the main ingredients, nitrate, was often mostly lost into the environment. Because nitrate must be imported, and the process used so much of it, it became very costly. Improvement was needed in order for sulfuric acid to be made at a much lower cost, since it was so widely used (Pafko, “Setting Stage”).
In the late 1800’s, Americans became fascinated with news that was coming over from across the Atlantic. Though it was not the advancements in the chemical engineering field that so interested them, it was the news of a serial killer “Jack the Ripper”. It seamed as though the surfacing of chemical engineering would just slip by unnoticed. However, the outline for the chemical engineering profession was laid out and fully recognized and appreciated by a select few (Pafko, “Setting Stage”).
Lewis Norton, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) first initiated the first four-year bachelor program in chemical engineering. It was called “Course X” (ten). Shortly after, Tulane University and the University of Pennsylvania began their own four-year programs. Chemistry departments began to see that there was a need for a profession that could apply all of the knowledge of chemistry gained throughout the last hundred years to fulfilling the needs of the emerging industries. With this in mind they began to teach their students a combination of mechanical engineering and chemical industry, with the emphasis on engineering, resulting in the category of chemical engineering. MIT gained an independent chemical engineering department in 1920 (Pafko, “Setting Stage”).
With more and more competition between major manufacturers arising, chemical plants strived for low costing and mass-producing methods was becoming important. Chemical plants needed to be optimized. This called for things such as: continuously operating reactors, recycling and recovery of non-reacted reactants, and cost effective purification of products. With these new advancements chemical engineers were now called for plumbing systems (for which traditional chemists were unprepared) and detailed chemistry knowledge (unbeknownst to mechanical engineers). These new chemical engineers were capable of designing and operating the increasingly complex chemical operations that were rapidly coming out (Pafko, “Setting Stage”).
In the late 1800’s, George E. Davis, an industrial Alkali inspector from Manchester England, presented a series of twelve lectures on the operation of chemical processes, which later became known as “unit operations”. It was these twelve lectures that sparked the interest as chemical engineering as a profession. Davis published “handbook of Chemical Engineering” which later had a second edition. He stresses the value of large-scale experimentation, safety practices, and a unit operation approach.