Chemical Engineers March On

The road is uneven and includes geographic and demographic turns.

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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Despite the current global economic uncertainties, the demand for chemical engineers seems to be holding up. Some key traditional U.S. employers, such as oil and petrochemical companies and contractors that support them, are adding staff, making up for weakness in other sectors such as pharmaceuticals and fine chemicals. However, jobs are migrating to where markets are strongest and more new plants are going up — particularly China and elsewhere in Asia — as many major firms set up engineering operations nearby.

Meanwhile, the rise of “green” initiatives, such as bio-based manufacturing and renewable energy (, are providing opportunities for chemical engineers in these rapidly emerging areas. And nuclear is staging a comeback, with recruiters in both the U.S. and Europe reporting an increase in demand there for chemical engineering skills.

Overlying the changing jobs situation, in the West at least, is a demographic time bomb. With thousands of experienced chemical engineers on the verge of retirement, companies must grapple with how to retain organizational knowledge — and effectively pass it on to the incoming YouTube generation with its very different way of absorbing information.

A Broad Vantage Point
No company can claim to have a comprehensive view of all these issues, but one that comes close is Air Products and Chemicals, Allentown, Pa. With 21,000 workers spread over 600 facilities in more than 40 countries, the firm supplies industrial gases, chemicals and services to almost every major manufacturer.

Figure 1 -- Growing Gas Demand: New technologies
are driving demand for traditional air separation units.
Source: Air Products.

Summarizing the technological situation, Richard O'Reilly, global manager for process technologies and himself a chemical engineer, says: “We are seeing increased demand for tonnage gases such as hydrogen for refinery applications where it’s used to refine heavier feedstocks and help reduce emissions. On top of that, new electronics applications such as photovoltaics demand a lot of specialty gases during the manufacturing process. Demand is even increasing for traditional air separation units (Figure 1) because oxygen is needed by new coal gasification and gas-to-liquid plants.”

O’Reilly cites strong markets for the company’s products and services in Asia, Central/Eastern Europe and the Middle East — plus locations with remote gas fields, where demand for liquefied natural gas (LNG) technology is strong. The importance of such markets and the need for suppliers to get closer to them is well illustrated by Air Products, which already has engineering centers in the U.S., Europe and Asia, and is planning to soon open a fourth one — in Asia.

New applications generally are becoming very targeted, he notes. “Take carbon dioxide capture, for example. We’ve been working on this for 10 to 15 years now and it seems to be coming of age. Although this does depend on what happens in terms of legislation. It could become a huge area for us,” O’Reilly says.

Figure 2. -- In the Vanguard:
Headquarters complex features a hydrogen-powered
shuttle van and refilling station.
Source: Air Products.

The company has an intense research-and-development (R&D) focus on future energy business, especially for hydrogen production, storage and distribution. It recently commissioned a hydrogen fueling station and hydrogen-powered campus shuttle bus at its Allentown headquarters (Figure 2). Air Products has experienced nearly 100% growth in its global hydrogen energy business in 2008.

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