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Everything you want to know about Chemical Engineering but haven’t asked

Published by Afterschool.my on Sep 24, 2012, 07:44 am

Chemistry is everywhere! Everything you hear, see, smell, taste and touch involves chemistry and chemicals. It would take a very long list to name all the products that are impacted by chemical engineers.  Yet despite the important role of chemical engineer has in today’s industries, students have little knowledge about this area of specialisation.  

In popular culture, we oftentimes perceive chemical engineers as scientist mixing chemicals in laboratories. Although it is partly factual, chemical engineers bring a set of special skills that a scientist or chemist may not deliver. Professor Alexander Gorin of Swinburne University of Technology in Sarawak gives a specific definition of what a chemical engineer is.

“A chemical engineer applies the fundamental knowledge from chemistry on the properties of substances and the interactions through chemical reactions and processes between different substances,” he said.

Gorin then sums it up with something simpler, “Chemical engineers are “universal” engineers that are educated and trained to oversee technical problems as a whole picture from different sides.”

He went on further, explaining that this branch of engineering is concerned with the proper design, construction, and operation of machines and plants that perform chemical reactions, the industrial development of new processes and methods for the synthesising of large quantities of naturally occurring substances and creation of new artificial useful materials.

Chemical engineers also needed in non-traditional areas

Besides from the wide range of employment opportunity in different areas, chemical engineering graduates with specialisation in areas not traditionally considered as chemical engineering are also required by industry, said Gorin. Among them are biotechnology and the metals processing industry, which includes light metal manufacture to separation of rare metals.

Fortunately, materials scientist and metallurgists as well as biotechnology engineers share much of the same education and skills with chemical engineers.  To get involved in biotechnology and metallurgy, a chemical engineering student must take subjects related to these fields.  Related subjects such as Light Metal Metallurgy based on electrochemistry as well as application of electrochemistry to industrial processing materials can get students on track to the metallurgical field.

“Since biotechnological processes represent physic-chemical and biochemical processes realised in bioreactors, it is important for specialists working in this area to have much of skills and education traditionally attributed to chemical engineering,” explained Gorin.

Among the main environmental problems due to engineering practice there are those related to different kinds of pollution (thermal, noise, carbon, toxics, etc.). Gorin added that environmental engineering is another field that chemical engineers can dabble on.  He said that sources of pollution and contaminant are chemical compounds reaction with each other and water.

“This means all measures of control and treatment are related to the use of chemical processes and chemical reactions treatment. So one can see chemical engineers are able to asses environmental impacts elucidate local, regional and global impacts of air pollution as well as implement appropriate technologies for the problem.”

Preparing for the challenges ahead

According to Gorin, upon graduation, a graduate has got some skill and ability to do some work within the area he trained in. “But what is more important, the graduate is equipped with the fundamental knowledge and principle which allow further skills development.”  He said that the industry is a continuous development. New knowledge comes and industry progresses – a principle of technical evolution.

“Any industrial process or technology is not something frozen once and forever,” Gorin emphasised.

As to the master degree, he said that any higher degree is very welcomed as it provides more opportunity in an individual career including more skills in using progressive scientific methods and approaches in professional activity.

The realities of chemical engineering

“So far, there have been no specific negatives in chemical engineering compared to other fields. Careers can be pursued in the chemical industry, energy production, oil and gas industry, dairy and food industries, petrochemical and other industries.”

Swinburne has reported 90 percent of its graduates to have found employment with some of the biggest names in the industry such as Intel, Ernst and Young and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Asked what important advice he can offer to someone interested in chemical engineering, Gorin smiled and said, “Be prepared to work hard, but this is a rewarding specialty!”

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Written by Lyn Cacha

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