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Chemical Engineering

Chemical engineering is full of opportunities-is it right for you?

By Eric Luchman

You're just about to leave campus to visit some friends, when you notice your car's fuel gage is nearly on empty. You pull up to your local Quickie-Mart, pay the cashier and wait in your car while the fuel attendant puts a hydrogen cartridge in a side compartment near the rear of your car.

No fumes. No pollution. And a clean burning engine. Could this be a scene from the future? Today's chemical engineers hope so. And perhaps you and your peers will lead the study of fuel cell powered cars that brings us there.

The students who choose the path of chemical engineering are not only at the forefront of discovering new ways to power cars, they're also entering a field that spans both traditional engineering and newly discovered technologies.

Engineering + Biosciences

When you think of chemical engineering, do you imagine scientists mixing Ultra Tide with Downy to create the best smelling detergent? Well, today's chemical engineering
encompasses much more than just that.

In the 1950s Dr. Charles R. Wilke, one of the founders of the department of chemical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, predicted the marriage of chemical
engineering and the biosciences. This union is reflected in the over 40 chemical engineering departments across the country adding "bio-" to their department's name. "Since then, chemical engineers have continued to contribute to this emerging technology," says Dr. Tony Saliba, chair of the University of Dayton's chemical and materials engineering department.

Carnegie Mellon University has started a bio-medical degree, and their chemical engineering department now requires a double major. "Within the bio-medical program, which we recently started, we now require a double degree," says Dr. Andrew Gellam, head of the chemical engineering department. "And most students choose chemical engineering as their second degree."

How are chemical engineers contributing to the biosciences today? Chemical engineers work alongside microbiologists in pharmaceuticals testing drug delivery. They are aiding in the development of bacteria, labeled "bugs", which can break down harmful pollutants.

For those students wishing to delve deeper into research, bio-medical research allows those with advance chemical engineering degrees to work on developing artificial tissues, therapeutic devices and organs. "Bio-medical engineering is still in the research phases and not at a point of mass production," says Dr. Kyriacos Zygourakis, professor and department chair of chemical engineering at Rice University.

Another area of opportunity for chemical engineers is materials research, or nanomaterials, an area where engineers and scientists are building materials at the molecular level to have specific properties for various uses. "Chemical engineers, because of their strong background in chemistry, their understanding of processing to property relationships, and their ability to work on the microscale and macro level, can make a significant contribution to this promising industry,"

says Saliba. Dr. Kyriacos gives examples such as extracting lactic acid from corn, which is then made into fibers. These fibers are used in products from carpet to the packaging used for dairy products.

Alternative Fuels

Though bioengineering, bio-medical and nanomaterials are exciting areas for chemical engineers to enter, Saliba believes the most significant contributions can be made in the areas of research and development of new sources of energy.

"In addition to the petroleum industry, which chemical engineers have traditionally worked in, significant opportunities are available in the development of alternative energy sources from shale, wind and solar energy, and fuel cells," says Saliba.

In fact, the future of how cars are run is now centered on proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells. Engineers are making many advances in searching out an alternative to petroleum-based fuel. PEMs use a process to convert hydrogen and oxygen into heat and electricity, thus powering cars. There are difficulties, however, that researchers have yet to overcome, such as storing hydrogen in the car. Hydrogen must be stored in containers that can handle high pressure and be small enough not to take up too much weight.

Car companies are optimistic, though, and have already rolled out their own prototypes of fuel cell cars. Despite the difficulty fuel cell powered cars face, engineers, car companies and the government see the benefits these cars provide, such as a cleaner environment and less dependence on fossil fuel.


If research isn't what you're interested in, you can still aide your peers in their research by developing testing equipment. Yellow Springs Instruments (YSI), based in Yellow Springs, Ohio, develops various products that chemical engineers use. YSI produces analyzers and monitors that fit within bioreactors, allowing engineers to receive real-time data during fermentation and cell culture processes. YSI even develops a product used by sports medicine departments across the country, the Sports Lactate Monitor, which allows coaches and trainers the ability to measure blood lactate levels. This monitor provides crucial information in determining levels of oxygen going to the muscles. (For more information, go to

Opportunities for Success

Though bioengineering, nanomaterials and alternative energy are at the forefront of chemical engineering, the more traditional areas of the industry still need top graduates. Established chemical industry jobs haven't decreased, it's just that the field itself has diversified to include the newest technologies.

According to the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, between 1990 and 2000 the percentage of students going into traditional chemical processing dropped from 44% to 27%. Sectors that saw an increase, however, included biotech, which rose from three percent to seven percent and electronics, going from two percent to 16%.

"Companies such as Intel hire many chemical engineers, especially in the computer chip making process," says Dr. Gellman. Though these numbers have changed over the last decade, one shouldn't be deceived. "Don't just look at the numbers; companies are not going away. There are many opportunities out there [with the more traditional chemical companies]," says Dr. Zygourakis.

Future chemical engineers have a vast array of choices when it comes to the industry and type of position they desire. "The job outlook for chemical engineers is promising because of the wide range of industries that they can contribute to, such as food processing, pharmaceuticals, and environmental and agricultural engineering," says Dr. Saliba.

Students have gone to work for companies such as Eli Lilly, Bayer and BP America. Engineers who are less interested in the research and development side of the field can consider more traditional positions. "Engineers who hold a bachelor of science degree can go into positions that have less research involved, such as plant managers, or they can go into management with a company and work their way up the ladder," says Joe Cramer, director of technical programming at the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.

This leads to an important question: should future chemical engineers have any concern when it comes to finding a job? "The placement of chemical engineers at the University of Dayton has been good despite the weak economy the past few years," says Saliba. "Sixty-nine percent of our students land a job within three months of graduation." The starting salaries of University of Dayton chemical engineers range from $42,000 to $59,000. And according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the average starting salary of a chemical engineer is $52,819.

Future of Chemical Engineering

Students graduating with chemical engineering degrees have a unique opportunity to enter the field in any area they choose. Engineering students who decide to go into research will be able to advance technologies that will benefit the environment or help physicians treat their patients more effectively. Those who are interested in business or management will have the opportunity to grow and succeed with the vast number of
prosperous chemical companies.

While we're not filling up our cars with hydrogen and proton membrane fuel cells at the local Quickie-Mart today, the hard work chemical engineers like you put in after graduation might work to further this cause. Just think, the cutting-edge technologies that we rely on in the future will be the result of your hard work.

Eric Luchman is a free-lance writer based in Chicago.

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