Chemical engineering is a lucrative and highly competitive profession that requires a lot of skill. In addition to having the right entry requirements, you’ll also need to undergo an apprenticeship or on-the-job training if you’re looking to pursue a career in this field. This article will explore everything from what a chemical engineer does and what tools you need in order to become one, to how to become a chemical engineer in the UK.
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What Is Chemical Engineering?
Chemical engineering is a relatively new field of engineering that is focused on chemistry. Put simply, it combines chemistry, engineering, and economics in order to solve various technological problems faced by industry. It mainly focuses on manufacturing and refining processes, ranging from processing raw materials like petroleum, to manufacturing high-tech products like computers.
Although chemical engineering students undertake many different subjects in chemistry, their studies have a strong engineering element that’s centred around:
- Designing machines
- Processing raw materials
- Manufacturing chemicals through various processes
Chemical engineering is the practical application of engineering concepts in chemistry. This means that chemical engineers are concerned with the design of factory machines and laboratory equipment, as well as the processes involved in the mass production of various goods, including common consumer items like fabrics, paints, cosmetics and food additives. Chemical engineers are also involved in creating advanced applications of cutting-edge materials, such as carbon nanotubes.
What Does A Chemical Engineer Do?
Chemical engineers mainly solve technological problems in various industries that involve chemical processes and material fabrications. In these areas, their job typically involves conducting experiments and creating resolutive prototypes that they then subject to extreme tests before full-scale versions are created.
For example, a prototype version of an anti-pollution device might be created first in a laboratory and thoroughly tested under various conditions before being scaled to full size for factory use.
Generally speaking, chemical engineers have the following tasks:
- Solving day-to-day and long-term problems that a plant may encounter
- Designing constructing and maintaining machines for chemical processing
- Ensuring employee safety in the manufacturing or processing plant
- Implementing environmental safety protocols, such as chemical waste treatment
- Developing and improving systems, equipment, machinery and processes
- Inspecting the quality of products and making appropriate adjustments
- Creating new chemical formulations and materials for commercialisation
Depending on the industry and company you work in, the specific responsibilities and tasks of a chemical engineer will vary. However, the common focus will be on solving technology problems that are related to chemistry. Therefore, a chemical engineer must have the technical skills to deal with these various problems.
Chemical engineers may also take on supervisory and team leader responsibilities. With experience, they often work closely with teams of process chemists and control engineers to make sure that the plant set-up is optimised for productivity and efficiency. In order to achieve optimal efficiency, it is a chemical engineer’s duty to either scale-up or scale-down the specific processes involved in various stages of manufacturing.
Another typical responsibility of a chemical engineer is assessing the various options for plant expansion. This is because oftentimes, there’s a need to reconfigure processes and machineries before plant operations can be expanded.
How Many Years Does It Take To Become A Chemical Engineer?
The years it takes to earn a chemical engineering degree vary. In the UK, earning your BSc or Bachelor of Engineering (BE) degree usually takes about three to four years.
At university, students typically undergo an apprenticeship or on-the-job training, and industry placements like these can lead to full-time careers after graduation. This form of industry training is crucial in teaching students real-world problems in the workplace that chemical engineers have to solve on a daily basis, whilst also familiarising them with plant operations.
In a typical week, a chemical engineering student might spend about 20 hours attending lectures and carrying out laboratory work. Many hours of self-study are also required, and the length of industry placements or on-the-job training can range from a few months to four years, depending on your approach.
Can You Become A Chemical Engineer With A Chemistry Degree?
As a STEM career, chemical engineering requires advanced knowledge of chemistry in an industrial setting. To become a chemical engineer in the UK, you’ll need at least a degree in chemistry, but there are other degrees you can earn to facilitate this career path, including:
- Chemical Engineering BEng
- Biochemical Engineering BEng
- Chemical Engineering degree apprenticeship
- Chemical Engineering MEng
- Chemical Process Engineering MSc
In the UK, your degree should be accredited by the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE). Meanwhile, you could also become a chartered engineer if you’re registered with the Engineering Council, which is the regulatory body in the UK for professional engineers. To be registered as a chartered engineer, you’ll need at least a Masters degree in chemistry.
Where Can A Chemical Engineer Work?
Private manufacturing companies are the largest employers of chemical engineers, and they include the following sectors:
- Materials research
- Fossil fuel companies that process petroleum
- Food processing and beverage manufacturers
- Water treatment and water distribution
- Electric power plants, including renewable energy
- Chemical and contract manufacturing companies
- Biotechnology companies, especially those involved in genetic research
A chemical engineering career can be very rewarding both in terms of financial gain and professional growth. It also opens you up to a range of career opportunities in either academic fields, private industries and even government services.
Find out more in our careers in chemistry resources hub.
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