Chemistry offers attractions on many scales

Even in a depressed job market, chemists have the kudos to prove their worth.

By Mike Spear, editor at large

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Chemical engineers have long basked in the glow of being among the highest paid of engineering professionals — and not just in the U.S. Salary surveys by the U.K.’s Institution of Chemical Engineers, Rugby, regularly show its members at the top of the engineering tree and not that far behind their peers in the legal and medical professions. Spare a thought then for the plight of the chemical engineer’s cousin, the chemist.

According to the latest employment-outlook figures published by the American Chemical Society (ACS), Washington, D.C., the job market for chemical scientists remains depressed for the fifth year in a row. Industrialists and academics told the ACS that their hiring rates will be around the same as last year, or even slightly lower. So, new chemists certainly face some real challenges at the moment in getting a start in the profession.

For those chemists already gainfully employed, however, the picture is somewhat rosier. A survey of their salaries showed a median rise of 5% for the year to March 2005. Meanwhile unemployment rates for ACS members have fallen to 3.1% from the record high of 3.6% the year before — which still is much better than the U.S. unemployment rate of 5.1% and a worldwide figure of 6.1%, according to the U.N.’s International Labor Organization, Geneva, Switz.

Chemistry clearly remains a profession with a lot going for it — not least the kudos of having its very own Nobel Prize. Glossing over that Alfred Nobel, who bequeathed the awards in 1896, was a chemical engineer (and, of course, the developer of dynamite), the Nobel Prize draws public attention and acclaim to some of the most important innovations and discoveries that have formed the foundations of the chemical industry we know today.

And not just today’s industry, but tomorrow’s too, as the untimely death in October of Richard Errett Smalley reminds us. Professor Rick Smalley of Rice University, Houston, was the co-winner — with Professors Bob Curl and Harry Kroto — of the 1996 Nobel Prize for chemistry for the discovery of C60, Buckerminsterfullerene, or the third form of carbon. When further research on “Buckyballs” in Japan led to the discovery of nanotubes in 1990, Smalley threw his not inconsiderable scientific weight behind advancing the cause of nanotechnology. As a scientific advisor to the U.S. government, he was a staunch supporter of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which now has a billion-dollar budget to promote the technology.

Some of the results of the burgeoning interest in nanotechnology have already made it through to the commercial scale, of course. Nanoscale particles can now be found in therapeutic cosmetics and skin-care products, in prototype self-cleaning surface coatings, and even in seals for the chemical industry (the new Nanofluor Y75N seals from Precision Polymer Engineering, Blackburn, U.K., feature semicrystalline, perfluorinated nanoparticles as filler materials).

The global demand for nanoscale materials, tools and devices could reach $28.7 billion by 2008, increasing at an average annual growth rate of 30.6% — or twice as fast as the biotechnology and informatics sectors, according to market analysts Business Communications Company, Norwalk, Conn. And the nanotubes market itself is forecast to grow at a phenomenal 173% annual rate.
Some critics warn, however, that we might be embracing the new technology too readily, without really understanding the behavior — particularly the physiological behavior — of materials at the nanoscale. But the potential is too great to call a halt now to the development of new materials and the processes to manufacture them. Working together, chemists and chemical engineers will have to reassure the doubters that their respective talents are more than sufficient to deliver products and processes every bit as safe as those demanded elsewhere in the chemical industry. They might not win the Nobel Prize, but their rewards undoubtedly will be far from nanoscale.

Mike Spear, editor at large
MSpear@Putman.net
Dr. Spear is editor of the U.K.’s Process Engineering magazine.

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