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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However, the need for chemical engineers in the pharmaceutical sector will reach saturation in a couple of years, Thien predicts.

Biotech and beyond
Chemical engineers could make great contributions in biotechnology and nanotechnology, says Nigel Hirst, owner and managing director of the engineering firm Haden Freeman, Hyde, England. He says many biotech processes would benefit from having chemical engineers involved earlier in their development.

 However, he doesn't expect biotech to be a big employer of chemical engineers, a view both Easson and Evans echo. Opportunities in materials science, such as getting better performance from composites, might offer more jobs, says William Byers, vice president and technical development manager of CH2M Hill, Corvallis, Ore., and current AIChE president. "Nanotech is getting a lot of government money and press now," he says, but expects the field won't provide many jobs in the near future.

Don't forget plastics, says Zakwan Alzein, director of chemicals and petrochemicals for Honeywell Process Solutions, Phoenix. Growing consumption of engineering plastics in pharmaceutical packaging, housing construction and automotive applications will provide opportunities. And some producers of commodity polymers will need more chemical engineers to help them shift to more functional, higher-value products.

Automation suppliers, management consultants and other service providers also will boost the number of chemical engineers in their ranks, in part to make up for capabilities that some operating companies no longer have.  Byers sees great opportunities in management consulting and marketing. "The business aspects of technical products remain as strong as they ever have been," he says.

"There's an abundance of potential areas for chemical engineers," Evans says. Chemical engineering has touched only 10% of the applications it could, Hirst emphasizes. "It has something to offer in many areas."

The lure of sustainability
Robin Batterham, chief technologist for Rio Tinto Ltd., Melbourne, Australia, and government-appointed chief scientist of the country, says chemical engineers must play a role in addressing sustainability issues. Batterham says chemical engineers cannot simply do what has led to success in the past and do it more efficiently. "Engineering has traditionally been about providing singular solutions for specific problems and often that within a single enterprise," he says. "Sustainability forces the horizons to expand from a single enterprise to the local community and, ultimately, to the global community." He stresses that chemical engineers will need to work with an ever-wider set of disciplines to integrate the basic approach of modeling and understanding at the micro level into a macro system.

Addressing the full life cycle of materials is a chemical engineering challenge, Byers says. There is a strong movement, particularly in Europe, to manage the end of life of materials and to design products with end of life specifically in mind. 
"Chemical engineers will have to develop large-scale technologies and innovative materials to allow for better closing of materials cycles," Cussler says.

Other opportunities abound
Improving productivity at existing plants still offers opportunities, Evans says. "There's no magic light switch to make firms competitive," warns Richard Morgan, vice president of consultant Celerant, Lexington, Mass. However, becoming a low-cost producer or offering differentiated products certainly is crucial. Many firms need drastic improvements that chemical engineers might be able to provide, he adds.

Chemical engineers will assume a bigger role in process control and operations optimization, says ExxonMobil's Dolan, because they understand the process, not just the control system. "Control engineers don't understand how the plant works, so chemical engineers are needed to simplify and achieve effective control," Hirst says.

 For the same reason, Honeywell's Alzein says chemical engineers are poised for greater involvement with Six Sigma and lean manufacturing concepts that now are starting to take hold at operating companies. This understanding of how a plant works and what it can do should lead to more opportunities in supply-chain management, he says. "Synchronizing manufacturing capabilities with supply-chain issues is a role for chemical engineers."
Software tools will help chemical engineers in other ways, too. Like molecular, computational fluid dynamics will become increasingly important, as will statistical tools for data mining, Evans says.

Cussler sees particular potential in product development. Most chemical engineers today are working to marginally improve commodities and mature specialty products, but the development of new high-value specialties is where the action really is, he says. For such products, speed to market is more important than production cost, Cussler explains, adding that this often means engineering skills must be applied in a different way (Table).

Increasing attention to safety and security also may call for greater input from chemical engineers. Some industry observers don't see much of a heightened role over and above the current involvement in process safety; however, others, including CH2M Hill's Byers, do. "We need to have the management, use and production of chemicals be inherently safer This requires systems analysis. That's where chemical engineers shine."

"Every aspect of energy will be under pressure and this will offer opportunities to chemical engineers," Hirst adds.

Outsourcing gets to the core
The move toward more and more outsourcing continues. The cutbacks this has spurred at operating companies have opened up more opportunities for chemical engineers with consultants, service providers and technology suppliers. However, there are fewer positions overall.

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