The ‘Chemistry’ of Chemical Engineering

– By Osama Hasan

“Engineering or Medical?”

“Engineering.”

“First priority?”

“Chemical.”

“So you like chemistry?”

“Erm… Yeah, something like that.”

Just because chemical is an adjective and chemistry is a noun, does not imply chemical engineering and chemistry are the same thing.

Chemical Engineering is about pressure, temperature, flow rates, and level; not beaker, flasks, and labcoats. Source: chem-eng.blogspot.com

Chemical Engineering is now a century old but still the most misunderstood of the engineering domains. With public perception of it being related to Chemistry, many students undertaking the subject are not even aware of the real facts till they attend their first class. Chemical engineering is a thrilling engineering field with huge diversity and vast industrial application. An interesting American survey rates Chemical Engineers as the highest paid employees.

The key thirst area for an undergraduate chemical engineering course is NOT chemistry BUT a combination of Chemical Engineering Thermodynamics (energy produced/consumed, completion of reactions), Chemical Kinetics (the rates and speed of reaction), Fluid Mechanics (managing flow lines), Heat and Mass Transfer (energy and material management), Instrumentation and Process Control (title is self-explanatory), Plant Design (designing equipment/systems where a reaction takes place) and Chemical Process Principles (stoichiometry and material/energy balance relationships).

Engro Fertilizers. Source: engro.com

In real work-life, Chemical Engineering is related to managing smooth and safe running of production lines. This could vary from production of polymer beads to fertilizer prills, crystal clear oil to purified water; not to forget the much amazing FMCGs (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) like ice creams, beverages, and other processing areas. Chemical Engineering is religiously linked with production lines wherever there is a chemical reaction involved in making a new product out of raw materials of entirely different nature. E.g., in fertilizer industry, one produces solid urea out of natural gas and air, which are gases. The graduates also manage production lines which do not necessarily include a chemical reaction, like refining and separation of petroleum fractions, water purification, etc. Below are the major work domains for any chemical engineer:

Design Engineers are expected to design, and not necessarily fabricate, the equipment for a plant. This may vary from mere pipelines, vessels, and valves, to mighty reactors, cooling towers and other operation units. The engineers consider the operating conditions i.e. temperature and pressure, type of service e.g. corrosive, flammable, and other key parameters to propose a design which is reliable, safe, and cost-effective.

PARCO Mid Country Refinery. Source: PARCO.com.pk

Operations Engineers operate a production plant maintaining the four key parameters i.e. flow rates, temperature, pressure, and level. Control over the process lines is maintained via variation of different types of valves and bypass routes which dictate the flow streams, as all other parameters are subject to the first parameter. The job of operations engineer is thrilling, with high probability of operational upsets and emergencies, and the need of immediate response via consolidated decision-making.

Process Engineers; this is a back-end function to oversee the plant operational parameters. Process Engineers analyze different trends to support the operations team in altering the operating parameters to enhance the process. They help optimize a plant through different means to improve the efficiency, suggest suitable modifications, cater process needs, and work with different data tools to ensure that best output is withdrawn from available resources.

Lucky Cement. Source: lucky-cement.com

Support Engineers perform support work in engineering domains, which include areas like health safety environment (HSE or SHE), quality, training, etc. They work as a support unit to the mainstream jobs and ensure that professional excellence is attained and maintained.

Work Areas:

  • Fertilizer
  • Cement
  • Oil and Gas Upstream – Rigs and wells
  • Oil and Gas Downstream – refineries purification unit
  • Chemicals
  • Design firms
  • Power Generation
  • Utilities / Water Treatment
  • FMCGs

Potential Companies:

  • Fertilizer: Engro, Fauji Fertilizers, Fatima
  • FMCG: Nestle, Engro, Unilever, Procter & Gamble (P&G), Coca-Cola, Pepsi
  • Cement: Fauji, Askari, Lucky, Bestway
  • Oil & Gas Downstream: Pak Arab Refinery Limited (PARCO), National Refinery Limited (NRL), Attock Refinery Limited (ARL), Byco
  • Oil & Gas Upstream: Oil and Gas Development Company (OGDC), OMV, MOL
  • Design: ENAR Petrotech Services, Descon
  • Chemicals: ICI, Engro, Sitara, Ibrahim

– The author is an alumnus of School of Chemical and Materials Engineering and Founder of NUST Science Society.

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