Chemical engineering is the branch of engineering that deals with physical science (e.g., chemistry and physics) and life sciences (e.g., biology, microbiology and biochemistry), with mathematics and economics in the process of converting raw materials or chemicals into more useful or valuable forms. In addition, modern chemical engineers are also concerned with pioneering valuable new materials and related techniques which are often essential to related fields such as nanotechnology, fuel cells, and biomedical engineering.
The term “chemical engineer” appeared in print in 1839, though from the context it suggests a person with mechanical engineering knowledge working in the chemical industry. In 1880, George E. Davis wrote in a letter to Chemical News stating that 'A Chemical Engineer is a person who possesses chemical and mechanical knowledge, and who applies that knowledge to the utilization, on a manufacturing scale, of chemical action.' He proposed the name Society of Chemical Engineers, for what was in fact constituted as the Society of Chemical Industry.
In 1905 a publication called ‘The Chemical Engineer’ was founded in the USA, and in 1908 the American Institute of Chemical Engineers was established. In 1924 the Institution of Chemical Engineers adopted the following definition 'A chemical engineer is a professional man experienced in the design, construction and operation of plant and works in which matter undergoes a change of state and composition.' (The first female member joined in 1942.)
As it can be seen from the latter definition, the occupation is not limited to the chemical industry, but more generally the process industries, or other situations in which complex physical and/or chemical processes are to be managed.
Chemical engineering emerged upon the development of unit operations, a fundamental concept of the discipline. Most authors agree that Davis invented unit operations if not substantially developed them. He gave a series of lectures on unit operations at the Manchester Technical School (University of Manchester today) in 1887, which is considered to be one of the earliest educational establishments dealing with 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 but 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 contemporary and essentially similar to Armstrong's course. Both courses, however, simply merged chemistry and engineering subjects. Unit operations were 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 in London. The American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) was established in 1908, chemical engineering becoming an independent science and unit operations being central to chemical engineering. Meanwhile, promoting chemical engineering as a distinct science in Britain led to the establishment of the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) in 1922. IChemE likewise helped make unit operations considered essential to the discipline.
But later on, it became clear that unit operations alone were insufficient. Further developments of science gave an analytical approach to chemical engineering. Advancements in chemical engineering before and after World War II were mainly incited by the petrochemical industry, advances in other fields being made as well. Achievements 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".
WHAT DO CHEMICAL ENGINEERS DO?
Chemical engineers develop economic ways of using materials and energy as opposed to ordinary chemists who are more interested in the basic composition of materials and synthesis of products from such. Chemical engineers use chemistry and engineering to turn raw materials into usable products, such as medicine, petrochemicals and plastics. They are also involved in waste management and research. Both applied and research facets make extensive use of computers.
In the field of engineering, a chemical engineer is the profession in which one works principally in the chemical industry to convert basic raw materials into a variety of products, and deals with the design and operation of plants and equipment to perform such work. In general, a chemical engineer is one who applies and uses principles of chemical engineering in any of its various practical applications; these often include 1) design, manufacture, and operation of plants and machinery in industrial chemical and related processes ("chemical process engineers"); 2) development of new or adapted substances for products ranging from foods and beverages, from cosmetics through cleaners to pharmaceutical ingredients, among many other products ("chemical product engineers"); and 3) development of new technologies such as fuel cells, hydrogen power and nanotechnology, as well as working in fields wholly or partially derived from chemical engineering such as materials science, polymer engineering and biomedical engineering. Chemical engineers sometimes are called 'universal engineers' because their scientific and technical mastery is so broad.