The BASF corporation used to advertise “We don’t make the things you use. We make them better.” For many years, DuPont would advertise “Better Living Through Chemistry”. These are just commercial slogans, but in many ways they define the traditional role of the chemical engineer (ChE). Chemical engineers apply their knowledge of chemistry, physics, and engineering techniques to create, design, and improve processes to manufacture materials we encounter every day, including:
Most of what emerges from chemical manufacturing facilities isn’t of immediate use to the consumer; instead, products are typically intermediates later used to produce consumer goods.
For example, a chemical engineer might be involved in designing an improved process for manufacturing PETE (polyethylene terephthalate) polymer. A ChE is also likely the manager of the plant that produces the polymer. The product that emerges from the plant will look like white or gray sand or gravel which is then shipped to another manufacturer. It is only in this next step that this polymer resin is molded into everyday products, most prominently soft drink bottles (with recycling number 1). So, even though the bottles wouldn’t exist without chemical engineers, most people remain unaware of the ChE’s role.
A chemical engineer’s education has special emphases on optimizing and controlling chemical reactions and on separation of mixtures. These skills apply to more than just manufacturing. Our environment and our human bodies are complex systems built upon chemical processes, so the chemical engineering skill set offers insight and opportunities to improve our environment and our lives. A ChE studying a human kidney would recognize it as a membrane separation and so would understand its principles. This understanding has been critical in the development of modern dialysis machines and artificial organs.
Biochemical engineering supplements the traditional ChE skills with additional study of biology, microbiology, and biochemistry. This knowledge enables the extension of chemical engineering principles to applications in biotechnology including commercial enzymes, food and food additives, pharmaceuticals, and biofuels. These processes use living cells in biochemical reactors, called “fermentors”, to conduct the manufacturing. The resulting mixtures are extremely complex, so bioseparations are one of the most important – and expensive – parts of biotech processes. Reactors and separations are the bedrock of chemical engineering, so it should be clear why ChEs are important in the broad application of biotechnology.
In sum, the education and training of a chemical engineer is an excellent starting point for a variety of career paths. CBU chemical engineering graduates are contributors in a wide range of industries and professions. Historically, most chemical engineers begin their careers in one of the Chemical Process Industries, manufacturing areas where a chemical reaction is a central part of the manufacturing process. These include (Example companies are all recent employers of CBU students or graduates):
Other chemical engineering graduates pursue careers with engineering services companies: organizations providing environmental (Ensafe), process management and control (Experitec), design (Lurgi), or other expertise.
Memphis’ strong presence in the distribution (FedEx) and medical device industries (Wright Medical, Medtronic) provide opportunities for more of our students and graduates.
Our graduates also pursue advanced degrees – in engineering (Georgia Tech, University of Memphis, University of Arkansas), health professions (Pharm. D, Palm Beach Atlantic University; M.D. , University of Tennessee), business (M.S., Engineering Management, University of New Orleans), and other fields.