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What is chemical engineering all about
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What is chemical engineering all about

It’s May. It’s the time when some students start to think on which course they should study after school. Others might have obtained their university offers and need to decide on which course they are going to choose. It can be hard, I completely understand. I once was in that position. How are you supposed to decide what course you want to take when you have never study something like [ insert a name of a course ] before? How do you know you will like it? How do you know you will survive? Well, I think the answer is, you need to know as much about the course you are going to study beforehand.

So, I decided to start writing on a series on studying chemical engineering at university. I’m a third-year chemical engineering student, so I think I am qualified to give you some insights and perspectives. I’m not too old that I forgot what it’s like to choose my university degree, but I also have some experience as a chemical engineering student under my belt. 

Firstly, we should start by understanding engineering as a discipline. What is engineering? Engineering is a discipline which basically uses scientific approach to solve problems. Engineers learn about maths and science (and other things in between) and then use them as a tool to solve problems in different scenarios. Different engineering disciplines are specialised to solve problems in different areas. Electrical engineers are trained to solve problems that are related to electrical systems, mechanical engineers are trained to solve problems related to machines. Chemical engineering are trained to solve problems related to the chemistry of the process or about a process in general. However, we generally are taught things about other strands of engineering as well. For example as chemical engineers, we can’t say that we don’t want to know anything about the machines or the electrical systems. We still need to know about what type of machines are there, how to build pipelines and how to make a specification sheet for an equipment. In this way, we can collaborate with different engineers and able to communicate because we know a little bit about the other disciplines. We know about the vocabularies that other engineers use and general knowledge enough to ask them questions. So basically in terms of other engineering disciplines, we learn enough to move from “I don’t know what I don’t know” to “I know what I don’t know” level.

Another name for chemical engineering is process engineering. We engineer the process, if you like. We think about ways to make your toothpaste, your soap, manufacture your clothes, your food, everything. You can find chemical engineers in many different industries, from energy, food, manufacturing or even law. And in order to solve problems that arise in different processes, we need to understand different parts that are crucial in the process, so we can take informed decisions in the plant. We can’t cover each industry in only 3 years of bachelor degree (in the UK, or 4 years pretty much everywhere else – you can read about the differences between UK and US here and here). So, we learn about the basics that we can apply them once we start working in any industry we choose – of course with further trainings. I’ll talk about what exactly we study on the next post, which will be long because I want to help you understand even though some of you might have never studied chemical engineering before. 

I would describe chemical engineering with these words: design, optimise, solve, innovate. We design equipment and plants to convert raw materials into products. We optimise existing processes to make them safer, more economical and more sustainable. We solve problems when we encounter them in the process. When we can’t find any solution to the existing question, we innovate to find a new solution (in other words – research and development). We do this in the plants or factories where we work in the context of an industry that the factory is working in. So if I’m a chemical engineer working in a factory making soaps,  I design, optimise, solve and innovate in the soap factory.

Chemical engineering is not the same as chemistry. In fact, I think they are quite far away. Chemistry  think about things in a smaller scale like molecular scale. They are concerned about how molecules interact with each other, different types of molecules, bonding of molecules… mini little things. Chemical engineering think about larger scale. We don’t think as much about what happens in a molecular level and think more about how temperature and pressure affects the recovery of our separation or our reactor conversion. We want to know about how fluid flows in pipes and stuffs like that. But we don’t need to know as detail to like how molecules slide above each other. Of course, to get understanding of the larger items we need to learn a little bit about the smaller items that make up the larger items, but I would say that they are not similar at all and we are not very detailed about it. As you can tell, one is science and one is engineering – they are different disciplines.

As I’ve mentioned, I plan to make a series. Please comment on more questions you have and I’ll answer them either in comment or as a blog post 🙂 See you soon!

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