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Chemical Engineers

The Job

Chemical engineers are rigorously trained in chemistry, mathematics, physics, and other sciences. They are among the most versatile of all engineers, with many specialties, and they are employed in many industries. Chemical industries, which transform raw materials into desired products, employ the largest number of chemical engineers. 

Research engineers work with chemists to develop new processes and products, or they may develop better methods to make existing products. Product ideas may originate with the company's marketing department. The basic chemical process for the product is then developed in a laboratory, where various experiments are conducted to determine the process's viability. Some projects die here.

Some products are developed and refined at pilot plants, which are small-scale versions of commercial plants. Chemical engineers in these plants run tests on the processes and make any necessary modifications. They strive to improve the process, reduce safety hazards and waste, and cut production time and costs. Throughout the development stage, engineers keep detailed records of the proceedings, and they may abandon projects that aren't viable.

When a new process is judged to be viable, process design engineers determine how the product can most efficiently be produced on a large scale while still guaranteeing a consistently high-quality result. These engineers consider process requirements and cost, convenience and safety for the operators, waste minimization, legal regulations, and preservation of the environment. Besides working on the steps of the process, they also work on the design of the equipment to be used in the process. These chemical engineers are often assisted in plant and equipment design by mechanical, electrical, and civil engineers.

Chemical engineers must be aware of all aspects in the manufacturing of chemicals, drugs, or other products. They must also understand how the manufacturing process affects the environment and the safety of workers and consumers.

Project engineers oversee the construction of new plants and installation of new equipment. In construction, chemical engineers may work as field engineers, who are involved in the testing and initial operation of the equipment and assist in plant start-up and operator training. Once a process is fully implemented at a manufacturing plant, production engineers supervise the day-to-day operations. They are responsible for the rate of production, scheduling, worker safety, quality control, and other important operational concerns.

Chemical engineers working in environmental control are involved in waste management, recycling, and control of air and water pollution. They work with the engineers in research and development, process design, equipment and plant construction, and production to incorporate environmental protection measures into all stages of the chemical engineering process.

As technical sales engineers, chemical engineers may work with customers of manufactured products to determine what best fits their needs. They answer questions such as, "Could our products be used more economically than those now in use?" or "Why does this paint peel?" Others work as managers, making policy and business decisions and overseeing the training of new personnel. Still others may act as biomedical engineers, who work with physicians to develop systems to track critical chemical processes in the body or look for the best method of administering a particular drug to a patient. The variety of job descriptions is almost limitless because of chemical engineers' versatility and adaptability.

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