What Do Chemical and Biomolecular Engineers Do?
Chemical engineering is a very diverse field. Industries that hire chemical engineers include bulk and specialty chemicals, polymer manufacturing, electronics, petroleum refining, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, personal care products, cosmetics, and many others. However, they also can be found in consulting and process design firms, federal and local governments, equipment manufacturing companies, and even on Wall Street.
Many chemical engineers will start their careers as “process engineers,” specializing in a particular process at a plant that makes a product, for example a particular polymer sheet, food product, drug active ingredient, or lotion. The engineer will be responsible for making sure the process runs smoothly and recommending process improvements. However, there are also many other types of positions that a starting engineer might fill, such as working for a design firm, a controls company, or even in a hospital or other facility where PET or other advanced imaging systems that require the use of chemical and radioactive tracer compounds.
It is difficult to find an industry where chemical engineers are not found. Many students also go on to pursue advanced degrees in medicine, pharmacology, bioengineering, or research in government, industrial, and academic laboratories.
How Can I Become a Chemical Engineer?
Students interested in pursuing a chemical engineering degree need a strong background in mathematics, chemistry, physics, and for some specializations, biology. Good writing and general problem solving skills are also important as well as an appreciation of the global nature of the modern world and how technology impacts our environment. All of these things start with a solid high school education and an interest in learning that will last a lifetime.
Chemical engineering programs are typically four years culminating in a bachelor’s degree. Some students attend a community college for the first two years and transfer to a bachelor’s program. Many students also participate in a cooperative education program where they alternate semesters on campus with paid employment at companies in the chemicals and process industries. The University of Tennessee has a particularly strong and active cooperative education program so be sure to investigate this option if you are interested. It gives students first-hand insight into what they will do in their careers and an appreciation for how the knowledge they gain in their classes is applied later in their jobs.
How is Chemical Engineering Different from Other Disciplines?
Chemical engineers study many fields that are common to other engineering and science majors. They take chemistry through organic and analytical chemistry. They take multi-variable calculus and differential equations. They also take thermodynamics, fluid flow, and physics including some electrical circuits and optics, as well as statics and dynamics. The coursework that is unique to chemical engineering is the study of how mass is transported and how it distributes between phases (important in the design of separations equipment in particular) and in the combination of reaction kinetics with the design of reactor equipment.
The field of molecular and cellular biology is also becoming important in chemical engineering as we search for new processes to manufacture materials and fuel modern technology with less environmental impact. In short, chemical and biomolecular engineers extend engineering analysis to processes at the molecular scale.
How Do I Know if Chemical Engineering is a Good Career for Me?
Most chemical engineers are strong in basic sciences such as math and physics, as well as having an interest in chemistry. As discussed above, biology is also becoming more important and many students go on to advanced training in biomolecular engineering. Biomolecular engineering includes the development of new drugs, new vehicles for the delivery of new drugs, the engineering of biological systems for energy and chemicals production, and other fields as well.