Entering a New Golden Age of Chemical Engineering

1/12   in the series We Are ChE: Entering a Golden Age
This post is the first in series of 12 posts about who ChEs are, what we're doing, and where we're going. I'll look at trends, consider the wide range of our abilities and achievements, and write about some of the core and new directions we are seeing. These topics are especially important right now because it looks like we are in the early stages of a new Golden Age of Chemical Engineering.

Once and future glories

ChE's first Golden Age was the period around 1915-25. Industrial chemistry's center had been Germany. Around the time of World War I, rapid growth of chemicals production began in Britain and the US, responding to increasing demand for liquid fuels, synthetic fertilizer, and other chemical products. ChE emerged as a distinct discipline, and unit operations was its organizing principle. The next Golden Age was the 1950s into the 1960s. Needs of consumers and industry fed our growth, oil was cheap, and ChE responded. We created new, large-scale, continuous processes and a host of products, applying advances in catalysis and polymer chemistry and early use of computers. To do it, we successfully integrated more math and physics to get the job done better - think transport phenomena, think process dynamics and control. Of course, remarkable advances were happening at other times. As one example, World War II saw the development of catalytic cracking, fluidized beds, synthetic rubber, and penicillin manufacturing. Since the 1980s, ChEs have been vital to growing pharmaceuticals production. However, in the 1970s the benign perception of the ChE profession was publicly transformed by global oil-price shocks and by serious environmental abuses like Love Canal. 1984's Bhopal disaster further shook the public's confidence in "better living through chemistry." Suddenly, though, we find ourselves in the right place at the right time.

Why now?

What has changed? Five key reasons are:

  • Manufacturing's shift to emphasize processes and properties
  • New abundance of hydrocarbon resources in the US
  • Biology's turning into a molecular science
  • Computing, evolved into a cyberinfrastructure
  • ChEs' breadth and problem-solving approaches

Likewise, what are the challenges we face?

  • Asserting leadership in the new face of manufacturing
  • Incorporating information management and analytics
  • Embracing our profession's breadth

In upcoming posts, I'll expand on each of these topics. It's not just the ideas of chemical engineering or the stuff of statistics and generalizations. It's all of us: educators, process engineers, lab researchers, financial and management teams, HR staff, tech services, sales forces, designers, and people in local, state, and national governments. It's Jim Davis, Tom Edgar, and Yinlun Huang advancing "smart manufacturing." It's Cathryn Sundback making prosthetic ears by cell culture at Massachusetts General Hospital. It's Don Pettit conducting research and making teaching videos on the International Space Station. It's Kim Ogden and Robert Hesketh developing a sustainability-engineering curriculum. It's Andy Grove fashioning Intel into a powerhouse microelectronics company. It's Jackie Ying crafting partnerships for bionanotechnology in Singapore, Rafiqul Gani seeking to integrate product and process design, and Jens N?rskov developing new catalysts through computation. It's each of us--and the diverse ways we use our ChE backgrounds.

Question: Where do you see ChE's future?

Phil Westmoreland is the 2013 AIChE president and a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at North Carolina State University (NCSU). He also serves as executive director of the NCSU Institute for Computational Science and Engineering. You can read his complete bio here.


I see so many parts of our professional, physical, and social world that chemical engineers are excited about and working in -- and the opportunities for us have rarely been better. What do you think? Look for more about ideas and people in future posts.

ehorahan's picture

Great Post! - I am looking forward to reading future ones! I agree - there are so many different types of fields that chemical engineers are working in and making contributions in - sometimes the different perspective that we lend leads to very different and sometimes revolutionary solutions. I work at a heavy truck manufacturer, but since people have heard that I "know chemistry" (as they put it), I get assigned to projects or asked questions that have to do with chemicals (paints, greases, waxes) or chemical behaviors. I don't think i've done anything revolutionary, but I try to help people understand the actual behaviors and risks - and try to dispel rumors or untruths about chemicals and chemical safety.

May's picture

Very well said Elizabeth (as always), and you have been a great ambassador for chemical engineering! As an employee of an oil and gas company, I have tried to do my part to educate my friends and family on some of the safe measures and work processes that the industry has put forth to operate safely, environmentally responsibly as well as profitably.

May's picture

This is indeed an exciting era for Chemical Engineering and I agree that each one of us to capitalize on this opportunity and benefit the society. Let's show the public how versatile and impactful Chemical Engineering is!

Robert S's picture

I agree, there are some broad movements in industry and society that we are ideally suited for. Energy - as it continues to diversify and rise in value engineers with a broad scope of abilities will be in demand. Design - as more people understand how interconnected everything is and how thoughtful design can prevent problems before they occur ChE are well positioned to provide those tools. Footprint - maximizing what we can do while minimizing our impact on the planet - process optimization at its best. Cross-over - more and more work requires crossing disciplines and borders. I think ChEs are well suited for this role too.

RGCook's picture

I've been at this for a while (25+ years, where + means I stopped counting) and agree that we are at an inflection point in terms of the ChE discipline brought about mainly via the proliferation of educated consumers of technology. The internet has made everyone, regardless of degree--quasi-experts in a relatively short period of time. As a result, the "E" part of ChE has necessarily had to bolster the science and development component upon which it is based to provide innovative solutions that go beyond the proprietary and know-how based practices that have served many well for years. Applications make it easy to run mass/energy balances without really knowing what is happening. Control systems can make you forget what the I variable in a PID loop does. The list goes on. SAT scores in reading are dropping across the USA and pundits are blaming the computing age, 1-minute attention spans and the never ending need to consume popular content. In this era of fast-paced innovation with readily digestible content that is forgotten soon after reading, we need to remain that which has kept us on top in terms of our value to society and that is through our unique ability to develop and apply science in a pool that is bigger than the proverbial "mile wide" and do so in a manner that is far deeper than "an inch". ChE's have always been privy to a plethora of opportunity regardless of industry, economic climate or era. I look forward to reading everyone's thoughts on this. Best, Bob

William Ayers's picture

Phil, Outside of our AIChE bubble, the world does not see chemical engineers as that valuable. Business Insider lists a chemical engineering degree as one of the &quot;10 Most Useless Degrees&quot;: <a href="http://www.businessinsider.com/the-10-most-useless-graduate-degrees-2013-9#4-chemical-engineering-7" rel="nofollow">http://www.businessinsider.com/the-10-most-useles...</a> This is because of low comparative salaries (even for PhDs) as well as flat or low salary growth during a career. Low unemployment rates for ChEs doesn&#039;t excuse the low salaries. AiChE has played a part in this problem for decades in iits refusal to push for higher salaries for their members. Part of this inaction comes from the conflict of interest in AIChE&#039;s accepting funding from the industry&#039;s corporate employers. In a bigger picture, chemical and many other engineering skills will continue to be hired on a per project basis from the lowest cost talent around the world. The world market has placed a value on chemical engineering skills. That will not be changed by turning AIChE into a union that demands higher wages. So &quot;Golden Age&quot;? Certainly for the range of problems to be solved. But not for the compensation to those who work on the problems. The success of chemical process simulation and automation as well as chemical reaction/catalyst simulation and optimization will continue to advance. Hiring someone with enough knowledge to run the &quot;Chemical Engineer in a Box&quot; software program will not cost much. What I object to is AIChE being used as a cheerleader for corporate and Federal (NSF, DOE) programs aimed at providing a pool of low cost engineers. During my lifetime, an engineering degree was viewed as a way out of the lower class. Over the last few decades, the racial majority students have wised-up and chosen careers in finance,medicine, etc. over engineering .However, those lower compensation engineering slots still needed to be filled. Hence, recruitment changed focus to women and minorities as well as pushing for more H1B visas.. AIChE should not be part of this cynical recruitment program. Regardless of gender or racial background, AIChE&#039;s ethical position should inform students of a ChE degree compensation potential and risks. This should not be &quot;insider information&quot; available only to students informed by a more affluent background network.. Salary surveys are not enough. Historical salary plots (inflation adjusted) and some personal stories of the ups and downs of chemical engineer career compensation could help better inform the students. For example, I would suggest an issue of CEP dedicated to personal stories and a rough compensation history of members who did the following: ChE undergrad only ChE plus MBA ChE plus MD ChE plus law degree or patent law ChE plus PhD (biotech, ChE, other) ChE plus form a company ChE plus ? This CEP issue could be posted on the website and provided to ChE departments to give students a fuller picture of compensation options. If they chose chemical engineering after absorbing this information, terrific! If not, we have done the students a service and helped their talents be rewarded appropriately. Best regards, William Ayers Princeton,NJ