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ChE Students: Take A Broader View

April 8, 2020
A job in industry requires much more than chemical engineering

“Isn’t that mechanical engineering work?” the intern asked, implying it wasn’t something a chemical engineer should do. Not wanting to appear condescending, I said, “No, writing pipe specifications is necessary...” This episode underscored to me once again the importance of chemical engineering students broadening their education. Specialization is a luxury in this world of shrinking staffs.

Many chemical engineering students lack an appreciation of mechanical engineering. For that matter, most probably think chemistry is boring and maybe even irrelevant to them. The plain truth is that the chemical engineering learned in school will form only a part of what most jobs demand. Indeed, the areas we consider chemical engineering — and, thus, ours alone — are pretty small.

Consider this: our specialties consist of separation and reactors. And, if you think about separation, many methods involve myriad mechanical and electrical details. Take solid/liquid separation. There’s filtration, centrifugation, cyclones, settlers, crystallization, leaching, floatation — and that’s just reading through the table of contents in “Handbook of Separation Techniques for Chemical Engineers” by Philip Schweitzer. None of these methods are truly unique to our business. For example, civil engineers commonly deploy sand filters, settlers, flotation devices and even cyclones in water treatment. As for centrifuges, try installing one without the expert advice of an experienced electrical engineer!

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Now, you’d think that distillation is one technique that is exclusively ours. Given the thermodynamics involved, I would tend to agree with you. However, the heart of the distillation column is the reboiler, unless you’re operating directly on steam or another heat source. Even then, the boiler is in the wheelhouse of the mechanical engineer, as are the reboiler and condenser.

That takes us directly to a subject I like to call fluid flow. The equipment involved, which I dub “movers” in my hard drive library, includes fans, pumps, compressors and ejectors. Mechanical engineers play a key role with such equipment. As for fluid flow itself, other than rheology, mechanical, aerospace and even civil engineers largely are in command. Where chemical engineers still dominate is when fluid flow design extends into the field of mass and heat transfer. Thus, distillation, extraction, crystallization and evaporation are solid niches.

Isn’t gas/liquid separation also a safe spot in our vocation? Generally, yes — but really only with hydrocarbons. The oil industry spent millions of dollars making it easier to model species with simple C-H, C-C bonds. The trouble is that you’re back in the laboratory if C-S, C-O, C-N and other bonds are involved. I work with formaldehyde, methanol and the products created from formaldehyde — and depend upon data developed by DuPont when it built a plant 80 years ago. I wouldn’t trust anything I could calculate using Peng-Robinson or even-more-advanced models of physical or chemical behavior. Besides, these advanced models rely on the same old laboratory data I’m using now. Many times, I’ve gone back to the laboratory to develop data for a calculation. In other words, if you considered chemistry class useless, think again.

Also, don’t fall for the fallacy that reactors are solely the domain of chemical engineers. Civil engineers generally design digesters, which are an important part of wastewater treatment. Their design and operation are based on biochemistry. Those reactor models bear a striking resemblance to the ones for pharmaceuticals.

Some chemical engineers have moved into the field of instrumentation, which you might think really is a niche for electrical engineers. However, electrical engineers often do instrumentation badly. They don’t understand fluids, chemistry and the branch fields of corrosion and materials. Getting involved in instrumentation means learning electrical engineering on the side.

So, the takeaway here is to broaden your skills. If there’s any profession where specialization is the bane of survival, it’s chemical engineering.

Getting back to the intern assigned to do the pipe specifications — that task not only will broaden her experience but also will help her develop research skills. Many different people likely will give advice or make specific requests. So, she’ll have the useful challenge of sorting out what’s the most-suitable pipe specification and presenting her conclusions so they’re accessible at a glance.

About the Author

Dirk Willard | Contributing Editor

DIRK WILLARD is a Chemical Processing Contributing Editor.

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