Setting the Stage for a New Profession, Chemical Engineering in 1888.

For all intents and purposes the chemical engineering profession began in 1888. While, the term "chemical engineer" had been floating around technical circles throughout the 1880's, there was no formal education for such a person. The "chemical engineer" of these years was either a mechanical engineer who had gained some knowledge of chemical process equipment, a chemical plant foreman with a lifetime of experience but little education, or an applied chemist with knowledge of large scale industrial chemical reactions.

An effort in 1880, by George Davis (see Davis below), to unite these varied professionals through a "Society of Chemical Engineers" proved unsuccessful. However, this muddled state of affairs was changed in 1888, when Professor Lewis Norton of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (see MIT below) introduced "Course X" (ten), thereby uniting chemical engineers through a formal degree. Other schools, such as the University of Pennsylvania and Tulane University, quickly followed suit adding their own four year chemical engineering programs in 1892 and 1894 respectively.

"Enough already...go to the bottom."

Questions to Ponder

What events led to the formation of this new profession?

Was this new profession really necessary?

Why did it emerge at the end of the 19th Century?

Why did England need chemical engineers?

How did America become the cradle of this new profession?

The Story: Early Industrial Chemistry

Chemical Engineering Needed in England

As the Industrial Revolution (18th Century to the present) steamed along certain basic chemicals quickly became necessary to sustain growth. Sulfuric acid was first among these "industrial chemicals". It was said that a nation's industrial might could be gauged solely by the vigor of its sulfuric acid industry (C1). With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that English industrialists spent a lot of time, money, and effort in attempts to improve their processes for making sulfuric acid. A slight savings in production led to large profits because of the vast quantities of sulfuric acid consumed by industry.

Sulfuric Acid Production

To create sulfuric acid the long used (since 1749), and little understood, Lead-Chamber Method (see Lead-Chamber below) required air, water, sulfur dioxide, a nitrate, and a large lead container. Of these ingredients the nitrate was frequently the most expensive. This was because during the final stage of the process, nitrate (in the form of nitric oxide) was lost to the atmosphere thereby necessitating a make-up stream of fresh nitrate. This additional nitrate, in the form of sodium nitrate (see Nitrates below), had to be imported all the way from Chile, making it very costly indeed!

In 1859, John Glover helped solve this problem by introducing a mass transfer tower to recover some of this lost nitrate. In his tower, sulfuric acid (still containing nitrates) was trickled downward against upward flowing burner gases. The flowing gas absorbed some of the previously lost nitric oxide. Subsequently, when the gases were recycled back into the lead chamber the nitric oxide could be re-used.

The Glover Tower represented the trend in many chemical industries during the close of the 19th Century. Economic forces were driving the rapid development and modernization of chemical plants. A well designed plant with innovative chemical operations, such as the Glover Tower, often meant the difference between success and failure in the highly competitive chemical industries. (see Sulfuric Acid below, or FIGURE: SULFURIC ACID GROWTH ).

Alkali & The Le Blanc Process

Another very competitive (and ancient) chemical industry involved the manufacture of soda ash (Na 2CO3) and potash (K2CO3) (see Carbonates below) . These Alkali compounds found use in a wide range of products including glass, soap, and textiles and were therefor in tremendous demand. As the 1700's expired, and English trees became scarce, the only native source of soda ash remaining on the British Isles was kelp (seaweed) which irregularly washed up on its shores. Imports of Alkali, from America in the form of wood ashes (potash) or Spain in the form of barilla (a plant containing 25% alkali) or from soda mined in Egypt, were all very expensive due to high shipping costs.

Fortunately for English coffers (but unfortunately for the English environment) this dependence on external soda sources ended when a Frenchman named Nicholas Le Blanc invented a process for converting common salt into soda ash. The Le Blanc Process (see Le Blanc below) was adopted in England by 1810 and was continually improved over the next 80 years through elaborate engineering efforts. Most of this labor was directed at recovering or reducing the terrible byproducts of the process. Hydrochloric acid, nitrogen oxides (see Glover Tower above), sulfur, manganese, and chlorine gas were all produced by the Le Blanc process, and because of these chemicals many manufacturing sites could easily be identified by the ring of dead and dying grass and trees.

A petition against the Le Blanc Process in 1839 complained that "the gas from these manufactories is of such a deleterious nature as to blight everything within its influence, and is alike baneful to health and property. The herbage of the fields in their vicinity is scorched, the gardens neither yield fruit nor vegetables; many flourishing trees have lately become rotten naked sticks. Cattle and poultry droop and pine away. It tarnishes the furniture in our houses, and when we are exposed to it, which is of frequent occurrence, we are afflicted with coughs and pains in the head...all of which we attribute to the Alkali works." Needless to say, many people strove to replace the Le Blanc Process with something less offensive to nature and mankind alike.

Soda Ash & The Solvay Process

In 1873 a new and long awaited process swept across England rapidly replacing Le Blanc's method for producing Alkali. While the chemistry of the new Solvay Process was much more direct than Le Blanc's, the necessary engineering was many times more complex. The straight-forward chemistry involved in the Solvay Process had been discovered by A. J. Fresnel way back in 1811, however scale up efforts had proven fruitless until Solvay came along 60 years later. No doubt this is why the method became known as the Solvay Process and not the Fresnel Process.

The center piece of Solvay's Process was an 80 foot tall high-efficiency carbonating tower. Into this, ammoniated brine was poured down from the top while carbon dioxide gas bubbled up from the bottom. These chemicals reacted in the tower forming the desired Sodium Bicarbonate. Solvay's engineering resulted in a continuously operating process free of hazardous by-products and with an easily purified final product. By 1880 it was evident that the Solvay Process would rapidly replace the traditional Le Blanc Process. (see Solvay below)

George Davis

Enter George Davis, a heretofore unremarkable Alkali Inspector (see Alkali below) from the "Midland" region of England. Throughout his long career Davis' daily rounds had carried him through many of the chemical plants in the region. Inside he was given intimate access to monitor pollution levels as necessitated by the Alkali Works Act of 1863. These rounds included the Lead-Chamber, Le Blanc, and Solvay processing plants which had undergone a revolution due to engineering efforts. This revolution in operation clarified the necessity for a new branch of engineering that was equally comfortable with both applied chemistry and traditional engineering. In 1880 George Davis acted upon these ideas and proposed the formation of a "Society of Chemical Engineers". While the attempt was unsuccessful, he continued to promote chemical engineering undaunted.

In 1884 Davis became an independent consultant applying and synthesizing the chemical knowledge he had accumulated over the years. In 1887 he molded his knowledge into a series of 12 lectures on chemical engineering, which he presented at the Manchester Technical School (see Davis below). This chemical engineering course was organized around individual chemical operations, later to be called "unit operations." Davis explored these operations empirically and presented operating practices employed by the British chemical industry. Because of this, some felt his lectures merely shared English know-how with the rest of the world. However, his lectures went far in convincing others that the time for chemical engineering had arrived. Some of these people lived across the Atlantic, where the need for chemical engineering was also real and immediate.

Chemical Engineering in the United States

In 1888 Americans were entranced by their local papers which carried news from across the Atlantic. However, it was not the emergence of chemical engineering that was exciting the populace. Instead "Jack the Ripper" grabbed headlines by slaying six women in the foggy, twisting London streets. With all the hype, sensationalism, and overblown coverage surrounding the world's first serial killer, it seemed that the emergence of chemical engineering might slip past unnoticed. However, the blueprint for the chemical engineering profession, as laid down by George Davis (see Davis above), was recognized and fully appreciated by a few.

MIT's "Course X"

Only a few months after the lectures of George Davis, Lewis Norton (see Norton below) a chemistry professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) initiated the first four year bachelor program in chemical engineering entitled "Course X" (ten). Soon other colleges, such as the University of Pennsylvania and Tulane University (see Penn & Tulane below), followed MIT's lead starting their own four year programs. These fledgling programs often grew from chemistry departments which saw the need for a profession that could apply the chemical knowledge that had been accumulated over the last hundred years. These pioneering programs were also dedicated to fulfilling the needs of industry. With these goals in mind, and following Davis' blueprint, they taught their students a combination of mechanical engineering and industrial chemistry with the emphasis most defiantly on engineering.

From its beginning chemical engineering was tailored to fulfill the needs of the chemical industry. At the end of the 19th Century these needs were as acute in America as they were in England. Competition between manufacturers was brutal, and all strove to be the "low cost producer." To reach this end some unscrupulous individuals stooped so low as to bribe shipping clerks to contaminate competitor's products. However, to stay ahead of the pack dishonest practices were not enough. Instead chemical plants had to be optimized. This necessitated things such as; continuously operating reactors (as opposed to batch operation), recycling and recovery of unreacted reactants, and cost effective purification of products. These advances in-turn required plumbing systems (for which traditional chemists where unprepared) and detailed physical chemistry knowledge (unbeknownst to mechanical engineers). The new chemical engineers were capable of designing and operating the increasingly complex chemical operations which were rapidly emerging.

"Enough already...go to the bottom."

Summary: The Details Worth Remembering

People to Remember

George E. Davis (1850 - 1906) (see Davis above)

An industrial Alkali inspector from Manchester England. In 1880 he proposed the unsuccessful formation of a "Society of Chemical Engineers in London" (F6). In 1887 he presented a series of 12 lectures on the operation of chemical processes (now called "unit operations") at the Manchester Technical School. In 1901 he published a "Handbook of Chemical Engineering" which was successful enough to demand a second edition in 1904 (V1). In this handbook he stressed the value of large scale experimentation (the precursor of the modern pilot plant), safety practices, and a unit operations approach. Davis was the man most responsible for applying the term "chemical engineering" to the emerging profession, and in many ways helped to define the scope of today's chemical engineer.

Lewis Mills Norton (1855 - 1893) (see Norton above)

A Professor of Organic and Industrial Chemistry at MIT. Taught the first four year course in chemical engineering entitled "Course X" (P2). Died at age 38.

William Page Bryant

In 1891 he was the first of seven students to graduate from "Course X" and thereby became the world's first formal chemical engineer. Spent the rest of his life as a rating auditor in the insurance business for the Boston Board of Fire Underwriters (V1). Even back then, college students did not always find jobs in their chosen profession.

Places of Interest

Manchester England

Location of the first formal class on chemical engineering; consisting of 12 lectures by George E. Davis in 1887.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (see MIT above) (Founded at Boston in 1861, moved to Cambridge in 1916.)

Offered "Course X" in 1888, the first four year chemical engineering degree which was taught by Lewis M. Norton. The program offered a mixture of mechanical engineering and industrial chemistry; however the emphasis was definitely on engineering. MIT gained an independent chemical engineering department in 1920. Throughout its prestigious history the University has provided nearly 5000 bachelor degrees in chemical engineering, and is consistently rated one of the top two chemical engineering programs in the country (right behind Minnesota).

University of Pennsylvania became the second school to offer a four-year degree in chemical engineering with its introduction in 1892. As at MIT, the emphasis was placed on mechanical engineering even though the degree sprang from the chemistry department.

Tulane University in 1894 became the first Southern school (located in New Orleans), and the third in the United States to offer a four-year curriculum in chemical engineering.

Industrial Chemicals & Processing

Sulfuric Acid (Oil of Vitriol) & "Fuming" Sulfuric Acid (Oleum) (H2SO4) (see Acid above)

During the 19th Century sulfuric acid was necessary in the production of alkali salts and dyestuffs, two giants of the day. Today the largest single use is in the manufacture of fertilizers. It is also necessary in petroleum purification, steel production, electroplating, and automobile batteries. The production of TNT (trinitrotoluene), nitroglycerin, picric acid, and all other mineral and inorganic acids require sulfuric acid. "Fuming" sulfuric acid contains excess amounts of sulfur trioxide and fumes when exposed to air; hence it's name.

Lead-Chamber Method was developed in England in 1749 to make sulfuric acid. A mixture of sulfur dioxide (SO2), air, water, and a nitrate (potassium, sodium, or calcium nitrate) are mixed in a large lead lined chamber thereby forming sulfuric acid (C1).

Potassium Nitrate (saltpeter, Nitre) (KNO3) Was obtained primarily from India and used to prepare matches, explosives, and fertilizers. Alternate sources of nitrates include: Chile saltpeter, an impure form of sodium nitrate (NaNO3), which was deposited along the Pacific coast by large flocks of birds which nested (and went to the bathroom) for thousands of years, & Lime saltpeter (Norwegian saltpeter) which is composed of calcium nitrate (CaNO3). (see Sulfuric Acid above)

Sodium Carbonate (Soda ash, Sal Soda, Washing Soda) (Na2CO3) & Sodium Bicarbonate (baking soda) (NaHCO3) are used to manufacture glass, soap, textiles, paper, and as a disinfectant, cleaning agent, and water softener. (see Solvay Process above)

Potassium Carbonate (Potash) (K2CO3) Produced by slowly running water through the ashes of burned wood (leaching) and boiling down the resulting solution in large pots ("pots of ashes" hence the name Potash). Potash can be used in place of Sodium Carbonate (soda ash) to make glass or soap.

Alkali Hydroxides (usually just called "Alkali") are used to produce glass, paper, soap, and dyestuffs for textiles, aid in oil refining, make bleaching compounds, and preparing leather. Sodium Hydroxide (NaOH) (caustic soda or lye) and Potassium Hydroxide (KOH) (caustic potash) are the two most common and important chemicals in this class. In 1863 the Alkali Works Act was initiated by the British government. It set limits for chemical emissions in an attempt to reduce the pollution that had devastated the "Midland" region of England for nearly a century and a half. (see Davis above)

Le Blanc Process (see Le Blanc above)

A method for converting common salt into soda ash using sulfuric acid, limestone and coal as feedstocks (raw materials) and thereby creating hydrochloric acid as a by product. It was invented in 1789 by Nicholas Le Blanc (1742-1806), a French industrial chemist. In 1794, just prior to the French Revolution, the French government seized Le Blanc's process and factory without payment. Although vast fortunes where accumulated through his process, Le Blanc died in poverty. In many ways, his process began the modern chemical industry. While the precise chemistry involved in the process remained obscure for nearly 100 years, it was later found to consist of several steps:

a) 2 NaCl (salt) + H2SO4 (sulfuric acid) => Na2SO4 (saltcake, intermediate) + 2 HCl (hydrochloric acid gas, a horrible waste product)

b) Na2SO4 (saltcake) + Ca2CO3 (calcium carbonate, limestone) + 4 C(s) (coal) => Na2CO3 (soda ash extracted from black ash) + CaS (dirty calcium sulfide waste) + 4 CO (carbon monoxide)

Solvay Process (see Solvay above) was perfected in 1863 by a Belgian chemist named Ernest Solvay. The chemistry was based upon a half century old discovery by A. J. Fresnel who in 1811 had shown that Sodium Bicarbonate could be precipitated from a salt solution containing ammonium bicarbonate. This chemistry was far simpler than that devised by Le Blanc, however to be used on an industrial scale many engineering obstacles had to be overcome. Sixty years of attempted scale-up had failed until Solvay finally succeeded. Solvay's contribution was therefor one of chemical engineering. The heart of his design embodied an 80 foot tall high-efficiency carbonating tower in which ammoniated brine trickled down from above and carbon dioxide rose from the bottom. Plates and bubble caps helped create a large surface area over which the two chemicals could react forming sodium bicarbonate. Solvay's process had several advantages over the Le Blanc process which it rapidly replaced: 1) continuous operation, 2) a product which was easier to purify, and 3) no dirty, hazardous, and hard to dispose of bi-products.

Table of Contents

What is Chemical Engineering?

Struggle for Survival

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Last updated on 4/4/98 by Wayne Pafko...
Copyright 2000, Wayne Pafko