Where are chemical engineers headed?

Will opportunities in today's "hot" sectors , such as pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, among others, allow chemical engineering to continue to thrive?

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By Mark Rosenzweig

The prospects for the chemical engineering profession in the United States long have been intertwined with the production of chemicals. Changing markets and stronger prospects in other sectors are weakening this link and are creating significant shifts in where and how chemical engineers will work.

Historically, a large portion of chemical engineers , 30% to 40% by some estimates , have worked for companies that produce chemicals, particularly petrochemicals and other commodity chemicals. The markets for such materials continue to grow. However, most of the increased demand comes from developing countries such as China. Production facilities in areas with lower-cost feedstocks, such as those in the Middle East, are in a better position to satisfy this growing market. It's no wonder that the United States' balance of trade in chemicals has swung into deficit for the first time ever , and exports show no sign of overtaking imports again.

Despite this, operating companies in the United States will continue to provide a substantial number of jobs for chemical engineers for the long-term, says Michael Dolan, executive vice president of ExxonMobil Chemical Co., Houston, who will become president of the company in September. Fuel, petrochemical and other commodity producers face ongoing technical challenges in increasing the efficiency of energy and raw materials usage, improving catalysts and producing more functional products, he says. This will require more understanding at the molecular level, such as basing control not on bulk properties, but molecules. Lawrence Evans, chairman of software provider Aspen Technology, Cambridge, Mass., agrees: "Improving productivity at existing plants still offers strong opportunities."

Dolan foresees a modest increase in demand for chemical engineers in fuels and petrochemicals, whereas Evans expects a slight a decline. Edward Cussler, professor of chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis-St. Paul, who has long followed the evolution of chemical engineering, says bluntly, "The number of chemical engineers in commodity areas will decline."

This raises a key question: Will opportunities in today's "hot" sectors , such as pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, among others , allow chemical engineering to continue to thrive?

Tap into pharma's promise

Changes in the pharmaceutical industry will require more chemical engineers, says Michael Thien, vice president of process R&D for Merck Research Laboratories, Rahway, N.J. "The amount of time for developing processes for manufacturing is shrinking by up to 30%," he says. In addition, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is moving toward allowing more changes in approved processes. "Less development time and more openness to change of approved processes means there's a need to be able to get a better understanding of a process faster," he says. As a result, many pharmaceutical companies that up until recently didn't employ chemical engineers in process development now are, he says. This role should expand. After all, engineers focus on the process, whereas chemists typically care more about the product than how it can be made, explains Louis Cabano, president of engineering firm Pathfinder LLC, Cherry Hill, N.J.

Alfred Center, who had been manager of engineering and construction for Caltex Petroleum and now is a senior lecturer in chemical engineering at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., sees another driver at work: Consumer concerns about drug prices ultimately will put more pressure on improving manufacturing efficiency to reduce production costs.

There's certainly potential for such improvements. Thien says that chiral compounds represent about half of today's sales and commonly are produced as racemic mixtures, which limits yield of the desired material to about 50%. "It would be much better to produce single enantiomers directly via asymmetric processing," he says, since that typically would offer 98% yields. "This could revolutionize the making of materials by providing 30% to 45% savings. He adds that engineering at the molecular level is important.

Emerging software tools allow much faster screening of potential solvents for processes. This can greatly reduce development time, Thien says, and chemical engineers can play a vital role in developing other predictive and correlative tools for process development.

Another promising area is drug delivery, Thien says, particularly in developing more convenient ways for patients to take medications. David Easson, vice president of manufacturing and process development for Epic Therapeutics, a South Norwood, Mass., subsidiary of Baxter Healthcare, agrees. "The drug delivery field is growing rapidly, with more and more opportunities to move from injectables to alternative routes, such as inhalation." This may mean that drugs have to be made via different unit operations and have different formulations. "Inhalation requires a certain size range; physical form has to be optimized to be taken by inhalation," he says. Chemical engineering challenges will center on scale-up.

Thien sees opportunities in designing tablets, including choice of fillers, compression strength and shape. This involves balancing, for instance, hardness against speed of dissolving. No fundamental method exists for this, so the company is having chemical engineers work on a correlative approach with academicians in the United Kingdom.

Easson believes there will be more of a focus on aseptic processing. Design and scale-up are chemical engineering issues, he says. "There are opportunities for chemical engineers to make more reliable sterile processes."

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