Chemical Engineering: Overview


What is Chemical Engineering?

An external picture of an oil refinery at nightThe Oxford English Dictionary defines Chemical Engineering as "a branch of engineering concerned with the application of chemistry to industrial processes, and involving esp. the design, operation, and maintenance of equipment used to carry out chemical processes on an industrial scale. (no date)."  

While chemical engineering has been around since the early days of fermentation, the term "chemical engineer" didn't emerge until the early 1900's (Hanson, 2017).

A processing plant will contain several elements which allow for the processing of chemicals/materials to create a finished product.  These can include evaporation, mixing, separation, and filtration (Hanson, 2017).  The design and operation of such processes is firmly in the chemical engineer's wheelhouse.

Chemical engineering is everywhere!

Supermarket shelves showing bottles of washing up liquidChemical engineering is a vast and varied industry.  It doesn't build landmarks, but it's everywhere in your home from the moisturiser you put on in the morning to the cleaning products you use to wash up the dinner plates in the evening.  From the paint on your walls and canvases to the petrol in your car.  Human beings just could not live in the modern world without the work of chemical engineers! (Innovolvo, no date)

But it isn't just "liquids" - there are also many new materials chemical engineers have created, for example plastic.  Plastic is created from petroleum, and is used in all kinds of things from containers for food to chairs.

Chemistry is often liken to "cooking" in that you try and find the right "ingredients" to mix together in order to get a material or substance with the properties that you need.  It's the "recipe" and the techniques used that allow us to create such varied materials.

Regulated industry

Chemical engineering is highly regulated due to the nature of some of the chemicals used.  There are various pieces of legislation and health and safety guidelines to be followed to ensure no-one is injured.  Chemical products such as cosmetics have to go through rigorous testing to ensure they do not cause harm to those wearing them or to those who make them on the mass-production lines.

Some chemicals are extremely toxic, and regulation doesn't just cover the manufacture or use of the chemicals - how they are transported from the factory to their final destination is also covered in the various transportation of hazardous materials regulations and guidance - be it by land, sea, or air.

When things go wrong

When things do go wrong, they can have a devastating effect on people and the environment, as well as being extremely costly to clean up.  While extracting oil (used to make petroleum) BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, resulting in 11 deaths and 4 millions barrels of oil being released into the ocean.  The resulting fines imposed for breaching the Clean Water Act were $5.5 billion (Environmental Protection Agency, 2022) and the clean up of the oil took years.

In 2005 an oil refinery plant in Texas had a severe accident when an explosion - caused by the release of flammable liquids from a blowdown stack - resulted in 15 people being killed, and 180 injured.  Effects of the explosion were felt three-quarters of a mile away from the refinery, and financial losses to BP exceeding $1.5 billion (U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, 2007).

Such accidents and the loss of life they've caused show how important safety is in Chemical Engineering, not just in processes and chemicals used, but in maintaining of equipment, and having rigorous management practices in place.

Chemical Engineers can change the world!

While Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) was originally invented in 1872 by a German Chemist Eugen Baumann, and again in 1913 by Friedrich Klatte - it was very brittle and so wasn't very useful.  In the 1920s Waldo Semon was trying to create a new adhesive that would allow rubber and metal to bond, when by accident he found a way to make PVC flexible. In resultant tests, this new plasticised PVC was also resistant to alkalines, solvents and strong acids - making the commercial applications for his discovery boundless!  By 1933 Semon had the patent for plasticised PVC, and in the years that followed products from raincoats to vinyl records were flying off the shelves (Flavell-While, 2010).

Into the future

The are many specialisms when it comes to chemical engineering - from medical applications (such as medicines) through to building materials.  Chemical engineering can be quite lucrative if you are able to patent your invention and produce your product on an industrial scale. 

A picture of a hydrogen fuelled carHydrogen storage is an area of current research with one result being the hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle (HFCV).  HFCVs work in a similar fashion to Electric Vehicles (EV) - however they don't use heavy batteries to produce electricity, just Hydrogen and Oxygen, and the only "emission" is water vapour.  However, while hydrogen is abundant, getting it into a pure form which can be safely stored and used is where the focus is.  Hydrogen cars have benefits over electric ones in that they are quicker to "fuel" and don't require the used of hazardous chemicals in batteries which are difficult to dispose of.  However, unless you live in California at the moment, finding a hydrogen refuelling station is extremely difficult (Voelcker, 2022).

Arguably one of chemical engineering's lasting legacies is plastic - especially single-use plastics, and efforts to reduce landfill waste are spawning various alternatives to single-use plastics.  The Packaging industry is one area which is actively looking into alternatives - especially food packaging.  Making materials that are either bio-degradable or recyclable is high on the agenda.  

Chemical engineers' work effects nearly everyone's life in some way, and there are many way you can make a difference if you become a chemical engineer.  


Environmental Protection Agency (2022) Deepwater Horizon - BP GUlf of Mexico Oil Spill. Available at: (Accessed: 20th February 2023)

Flavell-While, C. (2010) 'Waldo Semon - Rubber, PVC and... bubblegum?' in Chemical Engineers who changed the world. Available at: (Accessed: 20th February 2023)

Hanson, C. (2017) 'Chemical Engineering' in Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: (Accessed: 13th February 2023)

Invnoolvo Group (no date) 10 Fascinating Facts About Chemical Engineering. Available at: (Accessed 14th February 2023)

Oxford English Dictionary (no date) Chemical, C1 Compounds of the adjective. Available at: (Accessed: 13th February 2023)

U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (2007) Investigation report refinery explosion and fire Report No. 2005-04-I-TX. Available at: (Accessed: 20th February 2023)

Voelcker, J (2022) 'Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Vehicles: Everything you need to know; in Car and Driver. Available at: (Accessed: 20th February 2023)

Picture credits

The Oil Refinery Factory by Maksym Kaharlytskyi is used under Unsplash licence 

Retail shelves Supermarket by Franki Chamaki is used under Unsplash licence 

Coast guard and agencies response to Deepwater Horizon oil spill by USCG Press is used under CC BY 2.0 licence 

Clean cities by National Renewable Energy Lab is used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence