I so often hear the following:
Bob: “What do you do for a job?”
Emily: “I’m a chemical engineer.”
Bob: “Oh, so you’re a chemist. They’re the same thing, right?”
In fact, chemistry and chemical engineering are not the same thing. There’s always a slight rivalry between chemical engineers and chemists as to which discipline was harder in school or which is a true science but the main point is that both are equally important and, while they share some common ground, they differ in some major ways.
A chemical engineer certainly needs to know chemistry, but not close to the level of depth a chemist needs to know chemistry. Typically a chemical engineer will have taken basic chemistry, organic chemistry, and physical chemistry with one lab course in each. A chemist, on the other hand, will usually take quantitative chemistry and analytical chemistry along with a slew of lab courses in addition to those taken by a chemical engineer. A chemist has a greater understanding of the principles and theory behind chemistry along with a vast knowledge of lab methods. A chemical engineer simply learns the building blocks to chemistry. It is up to he or she to take if from there.
A chemical engineer also usually takes more advanced mathematics courses and process design (a process is something that consists of a series of steps that are taken to produce a product – for example, taking corn and producing ethanol involves a process). Chemical engineers also learn a bit more about thermodynamics and heat transfer.
When it comes to producing a marketable product, a chemist generally focuses on the building blocks of science and discovers new molecules, new methods for creating molecules, and new methods for testing for the presence of molecules (or atoms).
A chemical engineer typically takes the findings of a chemist’s work and produces the product on a mass scale by developing or implementing a process.
For example, imagine a chemist is working in the lab and discovers that venom from a snake is able to be used in blood pressure medication. The chemist (or biochemist in this case) will find the particular molecule in the snake venom that is useful in the drug. Since it is a headache to have a million snakes in a room producing venom for a drug, the chemist may find a way to develop the molecule in the lab.
Then a mix of chemical engineering and chemistry comes into play. A chemical engineer in a research department may find that while the method to produce the molecule in venom may work, it might not be an economical way to produce it in very large volumes in a cheap manner. She, along with a chemist, will work together to find a reaction that is able to produce the molecule on a large scale that doesn’t cost much.
Another chemical engineer will come in and develop a process around the newly discovered reaction. A process consists of multiple steps, or units, that work together to make a product. Imagine an assembly line producing a car. The parts go in and a car comes out. That’s just like a chemical process except the parts are various molecules and the car is the molecule of interest.
Both chemists and chemical engineers perform very important jobs, sometimes even working together, but they are not the same thing! Hope this helps clear up some questions!
[Photo Credit] Craig Anderson