Engineering360's new series of articles turns the spotlight on a prominent engineering field, focusing on what an engineer's job in that industry entails, its outlook and other factors such as professional associations and education.

This month, the Engineering360 spotlight will shine on the chemical engineer.

Who are they?

Chemical engineers (also known as ChemEs or ChEs) use their background in mass and energy transfer, unit operations, stoichiometry, process control and fluid dynamics to develop new processes, chemicals and materials. Increasingly, chemical engineers will need to apply knowledge of industrial internet of things (IIoT), robotics, automation, artificial intelligence (AI), sustainability and environmental regulations.

Like all engineers, chemical engineers have a basic foundation in advanced math (calculus, differential equations), chemistry and physics. Relying on the principles of those disciplines, chemical engineers design, produce, transport and transform energy and materials, as well as develop processes and equipment for large scale-manufacturing, direct facility operations and plan and test production methods and byproduct treatment among other duties. When they are not creating new products and solutions, chemical engineers are improving on older ones.

What do they do?

The easier question might be, what don’t chemical engineers do? Chemical engineers, also known as process engineers or universal engineers, improve food processing; develop techniques for producing fertilizers to increase available food; build synthetic fiber in clothing that makes it both water resistant and comfortable; create techniques for mass producing drugs, thereby making them less expensive; devise safer and more efficient methods for refining petroleum products, thereby ensuring that energy and chemical sources are more productive and cost-effective; and devise solutions to environmental problems, pollution control and remediation. In sum, they process chemicals, which touches upon virtually everything.

Where do they work?

Chemical engineers work in just about any field imaginable including the pharmaceutical, healthcare, construction, petrochemical, IT, environmental, food processing, biotechnology, microelectronics, chemical and manufacturing industries.

How do they do it?

Chemical engineers typically earn a four-year degree in chemical engineering. However, they are often required to complete coursework in related disciplines including math, physics, computers and chemistry. Once they have earned a bachelor’s degree, chemical engineers often go on to earn a masters degree or a Ph.D.

Where do they achieve their degrees?

According to the website, the ten best universities for earning a degree in chemical engineering, according to 2018 data, are:

  1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
  2. Stanford University
  3. University of California, Berkeley (UCB)
  4. California Institute of Technology (Caltech)
  5. Princeton University
  6. University of Wisconsin-Madison
  7. University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
  8. University of Minnesota
  9. University of Texas at Austin
  10. Yale University

What do they earn?

In 2018, chemical engineers earned on average an estimated $114,470 a year. Yet, this can differ due to location, skill set and experience, among numerous other factors. Those just starting out in the chemical engineering field can expect to earn anywhere from $69,000 to $87,000 a year.

Where do the find each other?

Once they have earned their chosen degrees (either Ph.D., masters or bachelors), chemical engineers are encouraged to become licensed. While it is generally not required, licensing will help to set the chemical engineer apart from their counterparts not in possession of licensing, making them more competitive in the job market. Another advantage that might set the chemical engineer apart from other chemical engineers is becoming a member of a professional chemical engineering society. Examples of some of those societies include:

Job outlook

The outlook for jobs in the chemical engineering field is upbeat, which are expected to grow at a steady 8% growth rate between 2016 and 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Demand for chemical engineers will likely be strong inn the biotech field, which is also expected to grow.

Chemical engineers in the news

Just one example of a chemical engineer at work is Sandra Pascoe Ortiz, a chemical engineering professor at the University of the Valley of Atemajac, in Zapopan, Mexico. Ortiz created bioplastic derived from the juice of the edible nopal cactus, also known as the prickly pear cactus. According to Ortiz, the cactus-derived plastic is safe for both animals and humans to consume and it biodegrades within one month in soil, or one week in water, which has implications for the mounting plastic crisis in the world’s oceans.

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