What is a Chemical Engineer?

What is a Chemical EngineerThe fact of the matter is, most of us are never exposed to chemical engineers or ever really taught anything about engineers in general. When someone says, “She’s an engineer,” everyone just thinks of either a person in a hard hat designing a bridge or a nerd in a lab.

You would not believe how often I get, “Oh you’re a chemical engineer? So you’re basically a chemist.” No way! A chemist and a chemical engineer are not the same thing!

I know when I was starting out my education and I learned of the profession referred to as “chemical engineering” I had absolutely no idea what it was. Literally, not a clue. I thought it meant a person who designs molecules in some fancy lab with a computer that magically cuts the molecules out with lasers. I know, sounds totally ridiculous. That’s just what those shows like CSI made me think of.

Then you go to school, take a bunch of chemical engineering courses, get out of school (hopefully, I mean, someday, right?), and still have no idea how to answer the question, “so what is a chemical engineer?”

So, what is a chemical engineer?

According to all the textbooks, a chemical engineer is an engineer who applies the natural and physical… blah, blah, blah. No one understands that, not even the engineer himself. Speaking from personal experience as a chemical engineer, a chemical engineer is a person who loves science and math, understands at least the basics of chemistry, and nerds out over combining those passions and knowledge and creating, transporting and/or studying chemicals.

When I say “chemicals” I want to stress that can mean either biochemicals or traditional chemicals (everyone thinks of those strong smelling chemicals and cleaners under their sink). We’re talking cells, strands of DNA, beer, bio-pharmaceuticals or enzymes along with gasoline, bleach, or glass cleaner. Pretty much anything you use on a daily basis that is something other than computer code, a chemical engineer “touched” it somewhere along its production. In fact, it’s possible a chemical engineer wrote part of that computer code too.

From my experience, I know that many chemical engineers end up in jobs where they make sure a chemical plant keeps running and optimize the plant’s production so that more product is made with less resources (okay, lets face it, basically make sure they make the most money by putting in the least money).

Maybe you’ve driven by a refinery at some point in your life or have at least seen pictures of one. You may have remembered all those pipes slinking all over the place and all those towers (that you may have mistaken for smokestacks but are likely distillation or absorption columns). All that equipment was designed by chemical and mechanical engineers. The people in charge of making sure the production keeps running are likely chemical engineers as well.

Chemical engineers can also be found in chemical plants that produce things like ammonia for fertilizer and cleaning products, or in a paper mill, or perhaps in a brewery. Why? Because of those plants make something from chemicals and need to transport those fluids and chemicals around the plant (or brewery). I know I was shocked to find out breweries hire chemical engineers. Pretty cool, huh?

It’s likely too that a chemical engineer will be found in a pharmaceutical plant too. Another place a chemical engineer is likely to be found is a hospital. It’s likely that at least a few doctors in the hospital have their undergraduate degree in chemical or biochemical engineering. That’s because the body is basically a chemical plant. A chemical engineer, and especially a biochemical engineer, learns the basics of how the body works and can apply the principles of chemical engineering – such as fluid flow, thermodynamics, biochemistry, and heat transfer – to the body.

In addition to all of those roles, you’re just as likely to find a chemical engineer in a lab studying a new way to make a chemical in large quantities with the fewest resources possible. You may also find out your lawyer was a chemical engineer. Perhaps one of the people who coded your favorite fitness and health app was coded with the help of a chemical engineer.

The great thing about a chemical engineer is that he or she is exposed to many math, science, and physics courses during their studies. Thus they are well trained to learn a variety of topics quickly and efficiently by building on his knowledge of the basics.

So here comes the question you’ll certainly be asked if you even mention chemical engineer; Is a chemical engineer and a chemist the same thing? The simple answer is NO!

A chemist is very well studied in chemistry. A chemist will know far, far more chemistry than a chemical engineer. He will be able to understand the fundamentals of chemistry and be very useful in the lab. A chemical engineer, on the other hand, will know at least the basics of chemistry but may not know many of the lab techniques, advanced chemistry, or how to design molecules. A chemist would be just as taken aback by calling him a chemical engineer as a chemical engineer would be calling her a chemist!

I hope this helped clear up some of the confusion surrounding the roles of a chemical engineer. There are just so many roles a chemical engineer can hold that it’s hard to pinpoint an exact definition. However, it’s important know the basics – a chemical engineer combines his knowledge of chemistry, physics, and fluid flow (well, thermodynamics, kinetics, biochemistry… as well) to make, transport, and study anything made with molecules.

Be sure to leave a comment below if you have any questions or input on what a chemical engineer does.

[Photo Credit] PEO ACWA

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