Have you ever wondered….
…how do chips remain crisp in a packet?
….can climate change be really countered?
…..why one brand of makeup irritates my skin while the other doesn’t?
….how do I get a particular colour of wall paint?
It is the chemical engineers who have answers for all these questions!!
There are some chemical reactions which we see in our everyday life – rusting of iron, fermentation of food, wood burning and converting to ash, and many more. But we do not want the iron to rust or the chips to get soggy! Yes it is possible to do it! It is the chemical engineers who study the reactions and come up with solutions to counter these changes. Sometimes the changes need to be done in large quantities and at different environments. This is also the responsibility of the chemical engineers.
So, what is chemical engineering?
Chemical engineering is all about turning raw materials into useful, everyday products. The clothes we wear, the food and drink we consume and the energy we use all depend upon chemical engineering. Chemical engineers focus on processes and products – they develop and design processes to create products; either focussing on improving existing processes or creating new ones. This means that they are also concerned with managing resources, protecting the environment and health and safety. Chemical engineers are sometimes called ‘universal engineers’ because it is such a broad discipline – they are essentially concerned with transforming one thing into another
Chemical Engineering, as Professor Geoff Maitlanddefines is ‘the union of chemistry, physics, biology, mathematics, and economics to refine and add value to raw materials and to develop and optimize chemical processes, often at an industrial level’.
The union of basic sciences coupled with the knowledge of all fields of engineering along the ongoing developments there in, has resulted in constant evolution of chemical engineering. The recent pace of automation owing to the rapid digital technology, computerization, data sensing and data analysis, has helped chemical processes to become more precise and controllable to achieve in huge quantum and never before possible products and processes.
Let us look at an example. A small process in the perfumery industry where, the separation of geometric isomers, geraniol (roseoil, B.P. 2300 C) and nerol (B.P.2260C) via vacuumfractional distillation resulted in value addition of the lemongrass oil by thirty times, to, the very dangerous enrichment of Uranium 235, which involved converting it into gas and freezing it, requiring the chemical engineering processes to be very precise with high safety standards.
Does this sound too complicated and difficult? It is complicated but a person who understands the reaction mechanism – like the chemical engineer – will follow it with ease.
Chemical engineering is not a new branch of engineering but has evolved over the decades. In fact, a lot of chemistry developed on several fronts between, 1890-1900.
The basic raw material ammonia for fertilizers and explosives was being made inefficientlyfrom coke. In 1909 Fritz Haber’s invention of economical fixation of atmospheric nitrogen to form ammonia was a game changer, due to Carl Bosch, an chemist and engineer, a pioneer in the field of high pressure industrial chemistry, who set-up an industrial scale operation involving 200-300 atmospheres and 4000-5500C temperature.
The production of ammonia sulphuric acid, nitric acid, hydrochloric acid which involved the expertize of chemical technologist, led to development of many downstream chemicals and processes in Metallurgy, Dyestuff, Pigments and Paints, Pharmaceuticals, Agrochemicals Pesticides, Insecticides, Fertilizers, Explosives and many Fine Chemicals.
The handling and control of high/ low temperatures, high/low pressure, flow of gas / liquid/ steam, filtration techniques, separation, distillation, freezing, evaporation, effective condensation is indeed the forte of a chemical engineer.
The chemistry in the early 1900’s was based on coal gasification-based chemicals. The discovery of crude oil and its mining gave rise to different class of chemicals known as petrochemicals.
These petro chemicals were used as fuel (petrol, diesel etc.), as monomers (for polymer, plastics), a range of solvents, lubricantsand numerousother applications. Use of these petro chemicals gave rise to innovative textile materials, engineering plastics, having application in aviation, space science, new synthetic materials. Each of these conversions/ transformation/ syntheses involved chemical engineering processes.
Biology also threw up lot of areas like micro biology, biochemistry and biophysics, each giving a lot of scope for the chemical engineers to exhibit their expertise in technology like fermentation, lypophilizing and many others specific challenges.
A major impetus in chemical technology was provided by the advancement in digital technology data collection / analysis leading to process automation and precise control. Instrumentation became the means for controlling and handling multiples operations simultaneous small precise operations to gigantic industrial complexes became a reality, to deliver large quantity of products with predetermine quality at cost effective of prices.
The latest technological quest is to produce green hydrogen through one of the four methods:
a) The Nano Chemical Processes.
b) Electrolytic processes.
c) Direct solar water splitting process.
d) Biological processes.
All these are based on knowledgeof chemical engineering.
So, it can be said that Chemical engineering is seen in all fields.Most jobs in the sector fall into one of two groups: the design, manufacture, and operation of plants and machinery, or the development of new or adapted substances and materials.
Thus it is no surprise that today Chemical Engineering Professionals are well placed and always in demand.
Dr. Manjusha S Deshpande
Professor in Chemistry
Department of Chemical Engineering
AlSSMS College of Engineering, Pune.