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Chemical engineering is the application of science, mathematics and economics to the process of converting raw materials or chemicals into more useful or valuable forms. The term economics is important here.
Chemical Engineering largely involves the design and maintenance of chemical processes for large-scale manufacture. Chemical engineers in this branch are usually employed under the title of 'process engineer'. Following is an example that illustrates the process engineering part of chemical engineering:
- The difference between chemical engineering and chemistry can be illustrated by considering the example of producing orange juice. A chemist working in the laboratory investigates and discovers a multitude of pathways to extract the juice of an orange. The simplest mechanism found is to cut the orange in half and squeeze the orange using a manual juicer. A more complicated approach found is to peel and then crush the orange and collect the juice. A company then commissions a chemical engineer to design a plant to manufacture several thousand tons of orange juice per year. The chemical engineer investigates all the available methods for making orange juice and evaluates them according to their economical viability. Even though the manual juicing method is simple, it is not economical to employ thousands of people to manually juice oranges. Thus another, cheaper method is used (possibly the 'peel and crush' technique). The easiest method of manufacture on a laboratory bench will not necessarily be the most economical method for a manufacturing plant.
The individual processes used by chemical engineers (eg. distillation or chlorination) are called unit operations and consist of chemical reaction, mass-, heat- and momentum- transfer operations. Unit operations are grouped together in various configurations for the purpose of chemical synthesis and/or chemical separation.
Three primary physical laws underlying chemical engineering design are Conservation of mass, Conservation of momentum and Conservation of energy. The movement of mass and energy around a chemical process are evaluated using mass and energy balances which apply these laws to whole plants, unit operations or discrete parts of equipment. In doing so, Chemical Engineers use principles of thermodynamics, reaction kinetics and transport phenomena. The task of performing these balances is now aided by process simulators, which are complex software models that can solve mass and energy balances and usually have built-in modules to simulate a variety of common unit operations.
The modern discipline of chemical engineering enables much more than just process engineering. This often involves using chemical knowledge to create better materials and products that are useful in today's world. Chemical engineers are now engaged in development and production of diverse, high-value products, as well as in basic chemicals production. These products include specialty chemicals and high performance materials needed for aerospace, automotive, biomedical, electronic, environmental and military applications. Examples include ultra-strong fibers, fabrics, adhesives and composites for vehicles, bio-compatible materials for implants and prosthetics, gels for medical applications, pharmaceuticals, and films with special dielectric, optical or spectroscopic properties for opto-electronic devices. Additionally, chemical engineering is often intertwined with biology and biomedical engineering. Many chemical engineers work on biological projects such as understanding biopolymers (proteins) and mapping the human genome.
Related fields and topics
Today, the field of chemical engineering is a diverse one, covering areas from biotechnology and nanotechnology to mineral processing.
- Biochemical Engineering
- Biomedical Engineering
- Fluid Dynamics
- Heat Transfer
- History of Chemical Engineering
- Mass Transfer
- Materials science
- Chemical reactor
- Separation Processes (see also: Separation of mixture)
- Particle Technology
- Process Control
- Process Design
- Process Modeling
- Pulp and Paper
- Academic Chemical Engineering Sites all over the World
- American Institute of Chemical Engineers (USA)
- Institute of Chemical Engineers (UK)
- Engineers Australia (AUS)
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