Chemical engineering is a branch of engineering that applies the natural (or experimental) sciences (e.g. chemistry and physics) and life sciences (e.g. biology, microbiology and biochemistry) together with mathematics and economics to produce, transform, transport, and properly use chemicals, materials and energy. It essentially deals with the engineering of chemicals, energy and the processes that create and/or convert them. Modern chemical engineers are concerned with processes that convert raw materials or chemicals into more useful or valuable forms. They are also concerned with pioneering valuable materials and related techniques – which are often essential to related fields such as nanotechnology, fuel cells and bioengineering.
- 1 Etymology
- 2 History
- 3 Concepts
- 4 Applications and practice
- 5 Related fields and topics
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 Bibliography
A 1996 British Journal for the History of Science article cites James F. Donnelly for mentioning an 1839 reference to chemical engineering in relation to the production of sulfuric acid. In the same paper however, George E. Davis, an English consultant, was credited for having coined the term. The History of Science in United States: An Encyclopedia puts this at around 1890. "Chemical engineering", describing the use of mechanical equipment in the chemical industry, became common vocabulary in England after 1850. By 1910, the profession, "chemical engineer," was already in common use in Britain and the United States.
Chemical engineering emerged upon the development of unit operations, a fundamental concept of the discipline chemical engineering. Most authors agree that Davis invented unit operations if not substantially developed it. He gave a series of lectures on unit operations at the Manchester Technical School (University of Manchester today) in 1887, considered to be one of the earliest such about chemical engineering. Three years before Davis' lectures, Henry Edward Armstrong taught a degree course in chemical engineering at the City and Guilds of London Institute. Armstrong's course "failed simply because its graduates ... were not especially attractive to employers." Employers of the time would have rather hired chemists and mechanical engineers. Courses in chemical engineering offered by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States, Owen's College in Manchester, England and University College London suffered under similar circumstances.
Starting from 1888, Lewis M. Norton taught at MIT the first chemical engineering course in the United States. Norton's course was contemporaneous and essentially similar with Armstrong's course. Both courses, however, simply merged chemistry and engineering subjects. "Its practitioners had difficulty convincing engineers that they were engineers and chemists that they were not simply chemists." Unit operations was introduced into the course by William Hultz Walker in 1905. By the early 1920s, unit operations became an important aspect of chemical engineering at MIT and other US universities, as well as at Imperial College London. The American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), established in 1908, played a key role in making chemical engineering considered an independent science, and unit operations central to chemical engineering. For instance, it defined chemical engineering to be a "science of itself, the basis of which is ... unit operations" in a 1922 report; and with which principle, it had published a list of academic institutions which offered "satisfactory" chemical engineering courses. Meanwhile, promoting chemical engineering as a distinct science in Britain lead to the establishment of the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) in 1922. IChemE likewise helped make unit operations considered essential to the discipline.
New concepts and innovations
By the 1940s, it became clear that unit operations alone was insufficient in developing chemical reactors. While the predominance of unit operations in chemical engineering courses in Britain and the United States continued until the 1960s, transport phenomena started to experience greater focus. Along with other novel concepts, such process systems engineering (PSE), a "second paradigm" was defined. Transport phenomena gave an analytical approach to chemical engineering while PSE focused on its synthetic elements, such as control system and process design. Developments in chemical engineering before and after World War II were mainly incited by the petrochemical industry, however, advances in other fields were made as well. Advancements in biochemical engineering in the 1940s, for example, found application in the pharmaceutical industry, and allowed for the mass production of various antibiotics, including penicillin and streptomycin. Meanwhile, progress in polymer science in the 1950s paved way for the "age of plastics".
Safety and hazard developments
Concerns regarding the safety and environmental impact of large-scale chemical manufacturing facilities were also raised during this period. Silent Spring, published in 1962, alerted its readers to the harmful effects of DDT, a potent insecticide. The 1974 Flixborough disaster in the United Kingdom resulted in 28 deaths, as well as damage to a chemical plant and three nearby villages. The 1984 Bhopal disaster in India resulted in almost 4,000 deaths. These incidents, along with other incidents, affected the reputation of the trade as industrial safety and environmental protection were given more focus. In response, the IChemE required safety to be part of every degree course that it accredited after 1982. By the 1970s, legislation and monitoring agencies were instituted in various countries, such as France, Germany, and the United States.
Advancements in computer science found applications designing and managing plants, simplifying calculations and drawings that previously had to be done manually. The completion of the Human Genome Project is also seen as a major development, not only advancing chemical engineering but genetic engineering and genomics as well. Chemical engineering principles were used to produce DNA sequences in large quantities.
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Chemical engineering involves the application of several principles. Key concepts are presented below.
Chemical reaction engineering
Chemical engineering involves managing plant processes and conditions to ensure optimal plant operation. Chemical reaction engineers construct models for reactor analysis and design using laboratory data and physical parameters, such as chemical thermodynamics, to solve problems and predict reactor performance.
Chemical engineering design concerns the creation of plans, specification, and economic analyses for pilot plants, new plants or plant modifications. Design engineers often work in a consulting role, designing plants to meet clients' needs. Design is limited by a number of factors, including funding, government regulations and safety standards. These constraints dictate a plant's choice of process, materials and equipment.
A unit operation is a physical step in an individual chemical engineering process. Unit operations (such as crystallization, drying and evaporation) are used to prepare reactants, purifying and separating its products, recycling unspent reactants, and controlling energy transfer in reactors. On the other hand, a unit process is the chemical equivalent of a unit operation. Along with unit operations, unit processes constitute a process operation. Unit processes (such as nitration and oxidation) involve the conversion of material by biochemical, thermochemical and other means. Chemical engineers responsible for these are called process engineers.
Transport phenomena occur frequently in industrial problems. These include fluid dynamics, heat transfer and mass transfer, which mainly concern momentum transfer, energy transfer and transport of chemical species respectively. Basic equations for describing the three phenomena in the macroscopic, microscopic and molecular levels are very similar. Thus, understanding transport phenomena requires thorough understanding of mathematics.
Applications and practice
Chemical engineers "develop economic ways of using materials and energy". Chemical engineers use chemistry and engineering to turn raw materials into usable products, such as medicine, petrochemicals and plastics on a large-scale, industrial setting. They are also involved in waste management and research. Both applied and research facets could make extensive use of computers.
A chemical engineer may be involved in industry or university research where they are tasked in designing and performing experiments to create new and better ways of production, controlling pollution, conserving resources and making these processes safer. They may be involved in designing and constructing plants as a project engineer. In this field, the chemical engineer uses their knowledge in selecting plant equipment and the optimum method of production to minimize costs and increase profitability. After its construction, they may help in upgrading its equipment. They may also be involved in its daily operations.  Chemical engineers may be permanently employed at chemical plants to manage operations. Alternatively, they may serve in a consultant role to troubleshoot problems, manage process changes and otherwise assist plant operators.
Related fields and topics
- Outline of chemical engineering
- List of chemical engineers
- List of chemical engineering societies
- Contemporary Food Engineering
- Education for Chemical Engineers
- English Engineering Units
- List of Chemical Process Simulators
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