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Impact of Chemical Engineering

A collage of images pertaining to chemical engineering.

Chemical engineering impacts all aspects of modern life. Chemical engineers turn raw materials into useful products. They play a critical role in all goods that are manufactured on a large scale, from chemicals, fuels, fertilizers, foods, pharmaceuticals, biologicals, medical devices, surgical tools, personal protective equipment, to packaging materials, cars, trucks and ships, electronic devices, appliances, clothing, furniture, buildings, clean water and energy. As a result, chemical engineers have well-paying, crisis-proof jobs with great location flexibility as they are always needed all over the world. The Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Rochester can help you become a successful chemical engineer through a thorough education, innovative research, and professional connections.

What Do Chemical Engineers Do?

Chemical engineers improve our well-being by enabling the manufacturing of goods on a large scale, making the processes to do so more sustainable, and providing a healthier, cleaner world. The development of smaller, faster computer chips, innovations in recycling, treating disease, cleaning water and generating energy are all processes that chemical engineers have helped create and make more efficient.

Chemical engineers work on safer, more powerful batteries to boost the mileage of electric cars. They design pipelines that convey chemicals over distances ranging from tens to thousands of meters. They develop successor technologies and new materials that turn climate-damaging carbon dioxide into useful chemicals. They create polymers for use as plastics, rubber, vinyl siding, pipes, personal protective equipment to keep health-care workers safe, and myriad other items of everyday life. They simulate blood flow through arteries to predict and prevent stroke. They harness their knowledge, skills, and expertise to create sustainable solutions that can protect and improve our environment. Chemical engineers even figure out new ways to combine the ingredients of our favorite breakfast cereals or pasta sauce.

How do chemical engineers do all these things? They apply research in the basic sciences—mathematics, chemistry, physics, and biology—to convert raw materials into valuable products and find solutions to global problems.

Where do Chemical Engineers Work?

The chemical engineering degree is very diverse, leading to many opportunities in a global competitive job market. Chemical engineering is central to all manufacturing, from the traditional chemical, energy and oil industries to biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, food production, electronic materials and device fabrication, and environmental engineering. Chemical Engineers develop, design and oversee processes that produce, transform, and transport chemicals, biochemicals, materials and energy. The unique training and expertise of chemical engineers is essential to modern technologies.

Many chemical engineers work in manufacturing, designing machines and plants, and ensuring that the processes run smoothly and in the most economical manner possible. They design processes and equipment for large-scale manufacturing, plan and test production methods and byproducts treatment, and direct facility operations of a wide range of products, such as plastics, paper, dyes, pharmaceuticals, polymers, fertilizers, petrochemicals, and many foods, often through computer-programmed process simulations and artificial intelligence.  Environmental engineering is a growing field of employment, with opportunities in process sustainability, pollution prevention, and safe disposal and recycling of toxic waste. Careers in biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, and nanotechnology are also very abundant for chemical engineers.

Careers in chemical engineering require technical, analytical, and decision-making skills to ensure safety and efficiency of processes, often at a large scale. A chemist may react a few grams, or even micrograms, of different compounds using a flask, condenser, and syringe at a laboratory bench. But a chemical engineer may be responsible for mixing literally tons of chemicals in batch reactors that may be 20 feet wide and 50 feet tall, or larger. This involves more than just mixing the right proportions of different compounds. Therefore, chemical reaction engineering is at the heart of virtually every chemical manufacturing process.

As a result, chemical engineers may be regularly required to apply their specialized knowledge and expertise in areas such as:

  • Thermodynamics to know exactly how much energy will be required to heat the reactants
  • Fluid dynamics to determine how large the pipes should be and what they should be made of
  • Reaction kinetics to determine the optimum size of the reactor tank
  • Process dynamics to install sufficient safety controls to prevent a catastrophic breakdown
  • Computer simulations to predict the behavior of complex systems and facilitate the design of optimized materials, processes and reactors

Chemical engineers make a lot of the decisions and design choices that influence how profitable a chemical process will be. They are passionate about solving problems and are much closer to the processes that make money.

What is a Typical Chemical Engineering Salary?

Mastery of specialized knowledge—combined with the potential for large-scale commercial applications—helps explain why a chemical engineer’s salary, on average, is higher than a chemist’s salary. In fact, the median annual wage for chemical engineers was $108,540 in May 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. By comparison, the median annual wage for chemists was $79,300 in May 2020.

There is even a marked difference in the full-time starting salaries for new chemical engineers with bachelor’s degrees versus those with chemistry degrees, according to the American Chemical Society’s 2019 Salary Survey. Notably, the median full-time starting salary for inexperienced chemical engineers with bachelor’s degrees was more than 1.5 times higher than for chemistry graduates.

Chemical engineers with undergraduate and graduate degrees go on to work in industry, academia, consulting, law, medicine, finance, and other fields. For more information, the  American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE)  offers an online database that lists companies that hire chemical engineers.

Becoming a Chemical Engineer

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering or a related field is the minimum educational requirement for most entry-level positions in the field.

At the University of Rochester, you can start or continue your education in chemical engineering. We offer the following degree programs:

Questions about chemical engineering at Rochester? Contact us.