Chemical engineering as a discipline that was developed out of those practising “industrial chemistry” in the late 19th century. Before the Industrial Revolution (18th century), industrial chemicals and other consumer products such as soap were mainly produced through batch processing. Batch processing is labour-intensive and individuals mix predetermined amounts of ingredients in a vessel, heat, cool or pressurize the mixture for a predetermined length of time
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. The product may then be isolated, purified and tested to achieve a saleable product. Batch processes are still performed today on higher value products, such as pharmaceutical intermediates, speciality and formulated products such as perfumes and paints, or in food manufacture such as pure maple syrups, where a profit can still be made despite batch methods being slower and inefficient in terms of labour and equipment usage. Due to the application of Chemical Engineering techniques during manufacturing process development, larger volume chemicals are now produced through a continuous “assembly line” chemical processes. The Industrial Revolution was when a shift from batch to more continuous processing began to occur. Today commodity chemicals and petrochemicals are predominantly made using continuous manufacturing processes whereas speciality chemicals, fine chemicals and pharmaceuticals are made using batch processes.
The Industrial Revolution led to an unprecedented escalation in demand, both with regard to quantity and quality, for bulk chemicals such as soda ash. This meant two things: one, the size of the activity and the efficiency of operation had to be enlarged, and two, serious alternatives to batch processing, such as continuous operation, had to be examined.
Industrial Chemistry was being practised in the mid 1800s, but it was not until the 1880s that the engineering elements required to control chemical processes were being recognized as a distinct professional activity. Chemical engineering was first established as a profession in the United Kingdom when the first chemical engineering course was given at the University of Manchester in 1887 by George E. Davis in the form of twelve lectures covering various aspects of industrial chemical practice. As a consequence George E. Davis is regarded as the world’s first chemical engineer. Today, chemical engineering is a highly regarded profession. Chemical engineers with experience can become licensed Professional Engineers in the United States, aided by the National Society of Professional Engineers, or gain “Chartered” chemical-engineer status through the UK-based Institution of Chemical Engineers.
In 1880, the first attempt was made to form a Society of Chemical Engineers in London. This eventually resulted in the formation of the Society of Chemical Industry in 1881. The American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) was founded in 1908, and the UK Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) in 1922. These both now have substantial international membership. Some other countries now have chemical engineering societies or sections within chemical or engineering societies, but the AIChE and IChemE remain the major ones in numbers and international spread: they are both open to suitably qualified professionals or students of chemical engineering anywhere in the world.
For the other established branches of engineering, there were ready associations in the mind of the common man: Mechanical Engineering meant machines, Electrical Engineering meant circuitry, and Civil Engineering meant structures. So chemical engineering can be symbolised as chemicals production.
The answer, provided by Arthur D. Little to the President of MIT, was to emphasize the approach chemical engineers took to the design and analysis of processes rather than a process or a product. The concept of Unit operations was developed to emphasize the underlying unity among seemingly different operations. For example, the principles are the same whether one is concerned about separating alcohol from water in a fermenter, or separating gasoline from diesel in a refinery, as long as the basis of separation is generation of a vapor of a different composition from the liquid. Therefore such separation processes can be studied together as a unit operation (in this case called distillation). The concept has stood the profession in good stead in its phase of growth, and has even been used to understand the way the human body functions
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In the early part of the last century, a parallel concept called Unit Processes was used to classify reactive processes. Thus oxidations, reductions, alkylations, etc
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. formed separate unit processes and were studied as such. This was natural considering the close affinity of chemical engineering to industrial chemistry at its inception. Gradually however, the subject of chemical reaction engineering has largely replaced the unit process concept. This subject looks at the entire body of chemical reactions as having a personality of its own, independent of the particular chemical species or chemical bonds involved. The latter does contribute to this personality in no small measure, but to design and operate chemical reactors, a knowledge of characteristics such as rate behaviour, thermodynamics, single or multiphase nature, etc. are more important. The emergence of chemical reaction engineering as a discipline truly signaled the severance of the umbilical cord connecting chemical engineering to industrial chemistry, and served to cement the truly unique character of this discipline.
Chemical Engineers are today focusing their disciplines on the use of alternative feedstocks such as biomass and societal waste to produce chemicals and energy. Their aim is to use less carbon in the manufacturing processes by making them more carbon efficient and these lower carbon processes is sometimes termed “Green Chemistry” or sustainable processing. An example of this is the work of the Northeast of England Bioresources Group (NEBR) created by the members of the Northeast of England Process Industry Cluster (NEPIC). Their work is aimed at creating the future biorefinery and other opportunities for energy and products to be manufactured from biomass and waste materials. An example where such work has brought results is with Coca Cola who have already required the commodity chemical polyethylene terephthalate (PET) to be produced in a more environmentally friendly way for use in their soft drinks bottles and their product “PlantBottle” was introduced in 2009.
In the 21st century most professional Chemical Engineers work in contract engineering companies or in the process industry companies that such engineering contractors serve. These are Commodity-speciality-fine chemical, petrochemical, pharmaceutical, biotechnology, polymer and renewable energy and sustainable materials companies. Many such companies can be found clustered around the large scale infrastructure that these industries need, such as ports, power stations, storage facilities, pipelines etc. This infrastructure is particularly important to commodity and petrochemical companies. An example of such a location is on Teesside in the Northeast of the United Kingdom where the process industry companies and the engineering companies collaborate through membership of the Northeast of England Process Industry Cluster (NEPIC). In this region
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, as well as the process industry companies themselves, there is a particularly high number of engineering suppliers supporting the sector. This includes offices of global suppliers like ABB, Jacobs, AMEC and Foster Wheeler as well as many local firms that also serve the industry internationally,such as KHome International, Cordell, Hertel etc. Chemical Engineers also contribute to industry via specialist technology companies again examples in the NEPIC Cluster are companies such as DRD Power, and CompactGTL. One report has suggested that the highest concentration of such knowledge intensive businesses (KIBS) in Europe can be found in Northeast England and a significant number of their 14000 employees are chemical engineers. In locations such as this Chemical Engineers share best practice through local sub-groups of their Professional Institution. The Teesside sub-group of the Institution of Chemical Engineers regularly meet to present updates on technical and operational issues and to share best practice. Furthermore Chemical Engineering degree courses and research takes place at the local universities such as Teesside University and Newcastle University
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