The exact duties of a chemical engineer differ according to where they work, but they are related to the production of almost every product that is manufactured on an industrial scale.
Chemical engineers are often tasked with researching and designing safer methods for production, pollution control and resource conservation. As project engineers, they may be involved in the design and construction of plants and selecting the best methods and equipment to reduce production costs while maximising safety and profitability. Chemical engineers will also work to upgrade equipment and troubleshoot problems.
Working in both full-time or consultancy roles, the duties that a chemical engineer may undertake include:
- Ensuring compliance with, and improving, health and safety regulations for working with different chemicals
- Maintaining compliance with environmental regulations
- Researching improved manufacturing methods and systems
- Monitoring and optimising production processes
- Determining production costs
- Recommending new equipment and designing equipment layouts
All of these more technical aspects of the work are complemented by good interpersonal and communication skills in order to disseminate ideas across different departments and to other engineers.
Many chemical engineers work within manufacturing to create enhanced products for industries including aerospace, automotive, biomedical, defence, electronic, environmental, medical and power.
Modern chemical engineering uses computer science to assist with the design and management of facilities, while chemical science principles were also influential in other fields such as genetic engineering and genomics, where it allowed for the production of DNA sequences in large quantities.
Chemical engineers work in a range of different locations, from research laboratories and offices to production plants and construction sites. Even when working in business and management offices, chemical engineers may also need to make visits to research or manufacturing facilities.
Working with large items of equipment, there is often a requirement to wear personal protective equipment such as goggles, steel-toed footwear or hard hats. Safety and hygiene is also important, particularly in food or drink production and water treatment plants.
Chemical engineering also provides opportunities to work abroad, with travel and overseas postings more likely with global manufacturing or consultancy companies than with smaller-scale national ones.
Many chemical engineers work as process engineers, which is the optimisation of design, operation and control of chemical processes, including equipment design and selection.
Some chemical engineers go on to work in biochemical engineering, developing cost-effective and environmentally friendly products such as medicines, renewable energy products like biofuels, and waste treatment solutions.
Roles where chemical engineers are employed include energy engineering, process engineering, nuclear engineering, biotechnologies, and environmental engineering.
The salaries of chemical engineers vary according to role, employer, and location. However, generally-speaking, wages increase with experience.
For example, according to figures from JobTed in 2022, junior chemical engineering salaries start at around £26,000 per year, increasing to an average salary of £50,000 before reaching an average of £82,500 per year for senior engineers and over £150,000 for the most experienced, chartered chemical engineers.
Many chemical engineers work standard hours of 9am-5pm with some working additional hours as required. However, those working in processing and manufacturing may be need to work shifts, including evening and weekend work.
Most chemical engineers go to university to gain a degree in chemical engineering or process engineering. Entry will usually require good grades in maths, chemistry and physics, as chemical engineering degrees can be competitive. Many chemical engineering graduates may opt to continue studying to post-graduate levels before entering the workplace.
Subject modules related to chemical engineering include cell biology, environmental management, fluid mechanics, industrial chemistry, petroleum engineering, separation processes, thermodynamic, and heat, mass and momentum.
Chemical engineering degrees typically take three years but can be longer if an industry placement is involved. The work involved in the degree will typically include writing essays and reports, laboratory-based work and experimentation, group and project work, presentations, research projects and attendance at lectures and seminars. As noted above, there could also be industry placements and work experience.
Work experience gives you an insight into the sort of work you may be doing once you graduate, allows you to make contacts in the industry, and even improve your chances of employment with the company you are placed with.
Another option to enter engineering is via an apprenticeship. These will depend upon your location, as apprenticeship chemical engineering programmes may not be available where you live. However, with a mixture of study and on-the-job learning, UK apprenticeships, for example, are designed to meet occupational standards related to the required skills, knowledge and behaviours of a role, ensuring competence to industry standards without the fees associated with a university degree in the UK.
Depending on where they work, practicing engineers may require professional certification and to be accredited members of a professional body. These bodies include the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), and the Indian Institute of Chemical Engineers (IIChE). Membership of a professional body will help you meet the requirements to reach the upper echelons of the profession as a chartered engineer.
While chemical engineering offers competitive starting salaries and the opportunity to progress and earn an exceptional wage, there are many other benefits to becoming a chemical engineer.
The profession allows you to use your knowledge and expertise to solve problems and deliver solutions that improve safety, efficiency and sustainability in the real world.
Offering a range of potential employment locations and challenges, chemical engineering can make a real difference to the global environment and provide you with opportunities to travel the world, while working alongside fellow experts.
There is also the benefit of being able to achieve professional recognition, growth and status within the role as your career progresses.
Overall, chemical engineering gives you the chance to use your knowledge and experience to make a real difference in the world, while getting well paid at the same time.
The work of chemical engineers has changed over the decades to take in new industries such as nanotechnology, there is still a strong connection to the power industries.
However, oil and gas expertise is now being offset by those entering sustainable and ecological fuel production while others enter mineral processing or bioengineering.
Chemical engineers are sought after by many of the largest private sector companies in the world as well as for government departments and research facilities.
Much of the work of chemical engineers across different sectors can be divided into three overall principles:
- Plant Design and Construction: This work involves the design or modification of plants, including pilot plants. These projects need to meet the needs of the client, meeting both specifications and budgetary constraints while also meeting regulations and safety standards. Project engineers and managers may require additional training, but these types of engineering jobs are the among the largest employers of chemical engineers.
- Process Design and Analysis: This area of chemical engineering is done by process engineers and is split into unit operations, to prepare or recycle reactants as well as control energy transfer in reactors, and the conversion of materials via a unit process such as oxidation, nitration or hydrogenation.
- Transport Phenomena: This involves the modelling and analysis of transport phenomena using a knowledge of factors like fluid dynamics, energy and heat transfer, and momentum and mass transfer. The work is typically considered on a macroscopic, microscopic or molecular level and requires an understanding of applied mathematics.
We have already mentioned that anyone wishing to enter chemical engineering should have strong academic knowledge in chemistry, physics and mathematics, as well as the laboratory skills to develop and design materials and processes. Engineers don’t just develop materials and processes, but need to transform them so they have practical applications, often including commercial viability.
The study and practice of chemical engineering will develop skills including:
- Knowledge of scientific topics, including chemical engineering methods and theories
- Application of scientific principles to meet industrial requirements
- Advanced laboratory skills
- Research skills, including use of scientific literature
- Understanding of manufacturing processes, including commercial and budgetary considerations
- Knowledge of the environmental, safety and ethical issues associated with chemical engineering
- IT and CAD design skills
- Analytical and problem-solving skills
- Project and time management skills
- Good communication skills – including oral and written as well as presentation and report writing
- Teamwork and leadership
Although many people may not realise it, chemical engineering underpins a lot of modern society through managing resources, protecting the environment, controlling health and safety procedures and developing the many products and processes that we depend upon.
By changing raw materials into useful materials in an efficient and cost effective manner, chemical engineering is involved in industries ranging from petrol and plastics to the creation of synthetic fibres, pharmaceuticals, medical implants, and more.
Is Chemical Engineering in Demand?
Chemical engineers are always in demand as they often work to provide products for other industries, meaning a ready supply of work in manufacturing-related fields. The level of demand for your expertise will grow with experience, meaning higher wages too. A lack of students studying STEM subjects can exacerbate the situation in some regions, creating a higher level than normal demand for chemical engineers.
Is Chemical Engineering a Good Career?
Chemical engineering is a good career for those with an active interest in chemistry, physics and mathematics who wishes to use their skills and knowledge to make an impact in the real world. There is also plenty of scope for career development and growth, with improved status and wages as a result. Mixing technical, environmental and commercial challenges also allows you to develop a wide range of skills that are ideal for senior management roles. There may also be opportunities to travel overseas for those who work with larger manufacturers or consultancies.
Can I do Chemical Engineering without Physics?
Physics and mathematics are both key to chemical engineering – along with chemistry and engineering skills of course! You will be expected to have or develop a level of knowledge in these subjects to become a chemical engineer.
Can I do Chemical Engineering without Biology?
While different universities and chemical engineering courses have different entry requirements, many will require biology alongside chemistry, maths and physics.
Can Chemical Engineers work in the Space Industry?
Chemical engineers can work in the space industry as well as other aerospace industries. This can involve nanofabricating materials for satellites, developing membrane-based purification systems for water or air in space exploration, and creating modern fuel systems.
Chemical engineer can also calculate material losses suffered during re-entry, the propulsion and thrust of rocket engines, and more.
Is being a Chemical Engineer Dangerous?
Chemicals can be highly flammable, toxic or corrosive, meaning that there are potential dangers associated with working with them. The list of potential hazards working at a chemical plant include chemical burns, exposure or inhalation as well as trips, falls, cuts and scrapes.
Of course, some of the hazards can occur anywhere, but there are strict health and safety regulations at workplaces such as chemical plants that help prevent accidents. These regulations were part of the driver for the growth of chemical engineering as a profession, meaning that modern chemical engineering need not be a dangerous profession due to procedures, processes and PPE. In fact, ensuring safety is a large part of the responsibility of chemical engineers.