Understanding the Geography of the Chemical Industry

"And therefore, it's very important for young people to know something about what you could call the geography of chemical business."

This was one of the observations made by Dr. Haldor Topsoe when asked about how young chemical engineers could better serve in the industry (Annu. Rev. Chem. Biomol. Eng. 2012. 3:1-10). Dr. Topsoe's observation resonated with my personal experience as a research and development professional in two different geographical locations for the past eight years. My blogpost is an attempt to identify strategies for students which may help them to be educated on this topic given the resources, constraints, and opportunities offered to them.

Every geographical region has its own distinct needs for products, which subsequently affects the nature of chemical industry associated with it. For instance, in an agrarian economy there is a large requirement for fertilizers to support crop growth. A geographical location in which agriculture plays a vital role is likely to have fertilizer production facilities nearby, or have a well-established supply chain for fertilizers. The availability of energy resources (e.g., naphtha or natural gas) influences decisions on producing industrial gases (e.g., nitrogen and hydrogen), which serve as raw materials for fertilizer production. Thus the uniqueness of requirements associated with a geographical region may help in cultivating an appreciation for the decisions driving chemical business.

These decisions may pertain to business aspects like supply of catalysts for operating a plant, transportation of fuels to the proximity of a chemical plant through pipelines or trucks, or utilizing reactors for industrial gas production. Local market conditions for preferring organic-based fertilizers in agricultural processes may also play a role in influencing these decisions. With the passage of time, I am beginning to wonder if the classroom environment could serve as a starting point to initiate this discussion for students who are aspiring for a career in the chemical industry.

AIChE resources

AIChE provides various opportunities for young chemical engineers to be educated on this aspect. Here are a few:

  • Chemical Engineering Progress (CEP) covers the topic in its Global Outlook section. Students may consider leveraging relevant information from these articles in their coursework related to process and product design.
  • AIChE hosts a Virtual Local Section for supporting "geographically isolated" ChE's. The interactions in the Virtual Local Section may provide opportunities for spatially separated participants to learn from their fellow colleagues.

Resources at your school

  • Students in their chemical engineering societies may interact with their fellow students from other countries to present their perspective on their region's chemical industry.
  • Another initiative which educational institutions may think of is to encourage students to share their internship experiences pursued during their study abroad.

These presentations could cover details pertaining to local market conditions and preferences, availability of raw materials, and relevant cultural attributes.

Learning the geography of the chemical industry is one of the facets of life-long learning for a practitioner in the global chemical industry. That said, an appreciation for elements related to spatial distribution of resources, and interaction between the various commercial aspects pertaining to the chemical industry can begin early in a chemical engineer's career.

What chemicals are dominant in your area, and why?

Images: Refinery, FEMA Photo Library/Jacinta Quesada
The views expressed in this article are the author's personal opinion on the topic, which is being put forth in an educational context.