Seizing the Future of ChE

12/12   in the series We Are ChE: Entering a Golden Age
This series has been based on the five reasons that are shaping our entrance into a Golden Age of ChE:
  • 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

I conclude by identifying three ways we can seize the future and shape our profession:

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

ChEs can take on a leadership role in manufacturing

Chemical engineers and AIChE can both promote our role in manufacturing and take a leading role in reshaping its modern form. The public, economists, and governments think of manufacturing as durable goods like cars or washing machines or aircraft built on assembly lines. We think of our industries as "processing," but in a true sense, we are "manufacturing" fuels and pharmaceuticals and polymers and consumer products with useful and valuable properties. It is up to us to recognize our work as manufacturing and to communicate better to the world that "ChEs make our world."

Jim Wei

Manufacturing and manufacturing jobs are changing in general toward higher productivity: higher production with fewer people. Jim Wei, 1988 AIChE President and Emeritus Dean of Engineering at Princeton, has pointed out an interesting trend in the chronology of jobs in the US and the world. Since 1810, the percentage of US labor in agriculture has declined steadily to a fairly steady few percent as fewer people produce more products.By contrast, the percentage of jobs in the US in industry grew steadily toward a maximum near 35% in 1965. Since then, it has dropped to about 20% or less. As in agriculture, we see that industry has shifted toward high productivity. Remarkably, when Wei plotted world job distributions, he found that countries at different stages of development generally fall along the same trend lines that characterized the different balances in the US over time.

ChE has always been a leader in such high-productivity manufacturing. ChE's leadership has been because of its focus on processing rather than high-labor assembly. Assembly is gaining productivity in part because of robotics, but it is using more and more processing. Think of the shift from vacuum tubes inserted into circuit boards to multifunctional solid-state chips made by chemical processing.

Information management and analytics are keys, along with cyberinfrastructure

Computer process control, data acquisition, and process design have further advanced ChE productivity. They haven't caused the same loss of jobs that assembly-based manufacturing has seen.

Data abundance creates new challenges for us, along with new opportunities. We are about to see an explosion in small, cheap sensors for temperature, pressure, composition, and detection of emissions. Video monitoring provides lots of bytes to be digested while monitoring processes and security. Logging data from the engines on a single transatlantic flight generates 640 terabytes; the full human genome has six billion base pairs with a vast number of variations. Our challenge is learning new ways to manage data and extract information from it. ChEs will need to acquire new skills in analytics and business intelligence. As I discussed in an earlier post, "analytics" is commonly used to describe statistics-based extraction of insights from large data sets or "Big Data." Presently, most ChEs have some experience with statistics, but these big, multivariable data sets call for new skills. Likewise, new high-performance computers use parallel architectures, whose speed depends on creating new solution algorithms. ChEs need to understand how these architectures work, including the sharing of memory, even if someone else is creating the code itself. Consider a classical algorithm like McCabe-Thiele, made up of sequential steps. If you have hundreds of thousands of processors in parallel, you might run that many cases, mapping a solution surface for the variation of input parameters. Another approach would be simultaneous solution of many positions throughout a process unit. Coupling such calculations through shared memory can slow them down severely. Use the architecture effectively, and speed-up is dramatic; use it unwisely, and it will be poor.

Embrace the breadth of our profession

A third key is to embrace both the differences within the profession and the aspects that link us. In my previous post, I suggested that our defining similarities are applying molecular sciences and doing problem-solving from the systems perspective that we acquire beginning at the very start of our careers. At the same time, our similarities can be hard to see because ChEs do so many different things and play so many different roles.

For example, I've recently heard strong opinions that the center of chemical engineering is energy and petrochemicals in Houston, Texas. To be sure, Houston is a capital of chemical engineering -- a world capital of the energy and petrochemicals industries and an important center of biomedical ChE. At the same time, the Arabian peninsula, Rotterdam, and New York/New Jersey/Pennsylvania/Delaware areas are a few of the other international centers of energy and petrochemicals. While it may be surprising, TX+LA and NY+NJ+PA+DE have almost identical numbers of AIChE professional members, 16% of the membership each. Then there are different sectors of ChE as well. I hear fears from sectors like commodity chemicals that new emphases on biology are squeezing them out or diluting the profession. To me, it's the opposite. Biology (which now is a molecular science) is bringing new markets, new products, new processes, and even new biomimetic approaches to expand our profession. Tissue engineering can be seen as ChE manufacturing of replacement body components. Another divide is between academics and industrial ChEs. For people like me who have worked in both domains, these sides just have different focuses and roles. Both academic and industrial ChEs educate their colleagues and themselves. Both are part of the manufacturing enterprise, creating and producing the ideas, processes, and products we use.

Entering the Golden Age

I believe a new Golden Age of Chemical Engineering will happen regardless of whether we consciously lead the new manufacturing or learn the new cyberinfrastructure. However, I don't think we can achieve it unless we embrace the third aspect, a new, broader view of our differences and commonalities - a vision of what chemical engineering is. Grasping that vision will be easier if we see examples. In the next year, AIChE will continue to tell the stories of different chemical engineers in different roles, such as the recent feature on Sarah Widder, an environmental engineer at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, or the interview with Terry Papoutsakis, biological engineer and Jay Bailey Awardee. Through this broader, inclusive understanding of who we are, we can better tackle the needs and the quality of life, providing clean water, food, health, energy, shelter, security, a safe environment, and more. We can shape the future of chemical engineering and the world.


I was asked about the number of ChEs in Texas vs the number in the Middle Atlantic states. Unfortunately, we don't have those data and had to use the number of AIChE members instead. There is popular belief that more ChEs are in Texas, but there is a large amount of both heavy industry and pharma/materials employment in the mid-Atlantic states. Does anyone have more complete data of the national demographics of ChEs?

May's picture

Very good question, I too am interested in the stats - I am going to ask my company's recruiting department and see if they know. There must have a study already done. Another method (however, not directly accurate as many ChE are not PE's) is to obtain the number of licensed professional engineers by state/region to compare.