Chemical and Biomedical Engineering

What is a Chemical Engineer?

  • An Engineer who manufactures chemicals, or
  • A Chemist who works in a factory,

This is actually a trick question as the correct answer is "None of the above." The two choices given make sense based upon the narrow sounding title; "chemical engineer." Surely such a person must be either a "chemist who builds things", or an "engineer who makes chemicals". Yet, all languages have sometimes their limitations and the name "chemical engineer" is a case in point. It is true that chemical engineers are comfortable with chemistry, but they do much more with this knowledge than just make chemicals. In fact, the term "chemical engineer" is not even intended to describe the type of work a chemical engineer performs. Instead it is meant to reveal what makes the field different from the other branches of engineering.

All engineers employ mathematics, physics, and the engineering art to overcome technical problems in a safe and economical fashion. Yet, it is the chemical engineer alone that draws upon the vast and powerful science of chemistry to solve a wide range of problems. The strong technical and social ties that bind chemistry and chemical engineering are unique in the fields of science and technology. This marriage between chemists and chemical engineers has been beneficial to both sides and has rightfully brought the envy of the other engineering fields. The breadth of scientific and technical knowledge inherent in the profession has caused some to describe the chemical engineer as the "universal engineer." Yes, you are hearing me correctly; despite a title that suggests a profession composed of narrow specialists, chemical engineers are actually extremely versatile and able to handle a wide range of technical problems.

Typically, Chemical Engineers apply the principles of chemistry to solve problems involving the production or use of chemicals and biochemicals. They design equipment and processes for large-scale chemical manufacturing, plan and test methods of manufacturing products and treating byproducts, and supervise production. Chemical engineers also work in a variety of manufacturing industries other than chemical manufacturing, such as those producing energy, electronics, food, clothing, and paper. They also work in health care, biotechnology, and business services. Chemical Engineers apply principles of physics, mathematics, and mechanical and electrical engineering, as well as chemistry. Some may specialize in a particular chemical process, such as oxidation or polymerization. Others specialize in a particular field, such as nanomaterials, or in the development of specific products. They must be aware of all aspects of chemicals manufacturing and how the manufacturing process affects the environment and the safety of workers and consumers.

As of the year 2000 there were around 70,000 practicing chemical engineers in the United States. During the entire history of the profession there have been only about 135,000 American chemical engineers (including those alive today). This means that more than a half of all the chemical engineers who have ever existed are contributing to society right now! Chemical engineering is not a profession that has to dwell on the achievements of the past for comfort, for its greatest accomplishments are yet to come (cf. Chemical Engineers in Action pages). The "Big Four" engineering fields consist of civil, mechanical, electrical, and chemical engineers. Of these, chemical engineers are numerically the smallest group. However, this relatively small group holds a very prominent position in many industries. Indeed, a chemical engineer is either currently, or has previously, occupied the CEO position for: 3M, Du Pont, General Electric, Union Carbide, Dow Chemical, Exxon, BASF, Gulf Oil, Texaco, and BF Goodrich. Additionally, many chemical engineers have found their way into upper management. Even a former director of the CIA, John M. Deutch, was a chemical engineer by training. Chemical engineers are, on average, the highest paid of the "Big Four." This year, Chemical Engineering salaries are up 7% from two years ago, to a median of $110,950. Furthermore, average starting salaries have risen to over $65,000. Only three of the 15 top paying degrees were outside the field of engineering -- but they each still require math skills.

If you have questions, or need additional information, please do not hesitate to contact us at:

CHE Program Coordinator
Department of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering 
1960 East 24th Street, 455 Stilwell Hall 
Cleveland, OH 44115

Phone: (216) 687-2569, FAX: (216) 687-9220 

    For more information please read the information mentioned in the Graduate Catalog » Master's Program » Master of Science in Chemical Engineering

    Do you want to learn more about Chemical Engineering? Visit the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) pages.