A Century of Contributions

While chemical engineering was first conceptualized in England over a Century ago (see SETTING THE STAGE), its primary evolution, both educationally and industrially, has occurred in the United States. After an early struggle for survival (see STRUGGLE FOR SURVIVAL), the profession emerged from under its industrial chemistry heritage with the help of the unit operations concept.

However, the metamorphosis of chemical engineering did not stop there. The addition of material and energy balances, thermodynamics, and chemical kinetics brought the profession closer to something a modern chemical engineer would recognize. With stress on mathematical competence, as necessitated by chemical reactor modeling and a more detailed examination of transport phenomena, chemical engineering continues to broaden in scope. A further requirement in computer literacy, as necessary for process control, allows today's chemical engineer to be much more efficient with their time.

Along the way, this changing educational emphasis has helped the chemical engineer keep up with the changing industrial needs and continue to make significant contributes to society (see TIMELINE). Today their broad background has opened doors to many interdisciplinary areas such as catalysis, colloid science, combustion, electrochemical engineering, polymer technology, food processing, and biotechnology. The future of chemical engineering seems to lie with these continuing trends towards greater diversity.

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

Questions to Ponder

How has the role of chemical engineering evolved over the past Century?

How has chemical engineering education evolved over the past Century?

What might be in store for chemical engineers in the 21st Century?

The Story: Chemical Engineering Evolution

World War I

Outbreak of Hostilities

On June 28, 1914, crowds of people lined the streets of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia (then a province of Austria-Hungary), in hopes of seeing the Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife Sofia. A young student, Gavrilo Princip, leapt from the crowd and assassinated the Archduke and his wife. Suspecting the plot originated in Serbia, Austria-Hungary (including Bosnia) declared war on the small country. By the end of 1914, Europe was swept into the horrendous conflict that would become World War I (maybe we should be more concerned with the ongoing hostilities between the Bosnians and Serbians!)

The American Situation

Prior to the war, Germany had reigned supreme in organic chemistry and chemical technology. It was said in 1905 that America lagged fifty years behind the Germans in organic chemical processing (H7). Even America's chemistry and chemical engineering professors had been primarily trained in German Universities, and a working knowledge of the German language was essential to keep up with the latest chemical advances. All in all, America's chemical industry was too narrow, concentrating in only a few high volume chemical products, such as sulfuric acid.

America's Opportunity

As war raged in Europe, the America found itself isolated from Germany. British blockades prevented valuable dyes and drugs, produced only in Germany, from reaching American shores. Suddenly the American chemical industry was given the opportunity to enter these markets without foreign competition.

The Problem

However, chemical engineers were not entirely ready for this turn of events. Their education had consisted primarily of instruction in engineering practice and industrial chemistry. This memorization of existing chemical processes was fine for supervising established chemical plants, but left them at a great disadvantage when faced with tackling entirely new problems.

Faced with this challenge, how could the technological know-how concerning one set of chemicals be transferred to a new set? The answer came in 1915, when Arthur Little introduced the "unit operations" concept. With it, chemical engineers where trained about chemical processes in a more abstract manner. Their expertise became independent of the actual chemicals involved, allowing the rapid establishment of new industries. In short, education had responded to the needs of industry.

The Industry of War

In 1917, after loosing several ships and many lives, the United States declared war on Germany and her Allies. One of the first actions of the U.S. Government was to ensure our chemists and chemical engineers did not die in the trenches as had happened to our European counterparts. Instead, they were enlisted to create the materials necessary to wage war. Suddenly, united by a common foe, America's chemical industries began cooperating instead of competing. This cooperation would build the ammonia plants that produced the explosives (and fertilizers) that helped win the war (see NITROGEN: FOOD OR FLAMES).

World War II

Hostilities Re-Ignite

On September 18, 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria. Eight years later, on September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and war again raged on the European continent. With Japan's infamous bombing of Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941, America was once again thrust into a World War.

Synthetic Rubber

The importance of rubber in warfare was demonstrated by the Germans in World War I. The Germans had been cut off from their foreign rubber supply by the British blockade. Without rubber their trucks ran out of tires while their troops had to go without walking boots. In an effort to salvage the situation, Germany began experimenting with synthetic rubber. However, they never found a formula that worked well enough and could be produced in large enough quantities.

Similarly, in the opening days of World War II, Japan rapidly captured rubber producing lands in the Far East, depriving America of 90% of its natural rubber sources. Suddenly America found itself in the same undesirable position that had confronted Germany forty years before.

However, with the help of their new educational emphasis on the underlying principles of chemistry and engineering as opposed to the gross memorization of existing industrial chemical reactions, American chemical engineers were in a position to make great contributions to the synthetic rubber effort. The unit operations concept, combined with mass and energy balances and thermodynamics (which had been stressed in the 30's), allowed the rapid design, construction, and operation of synthetic rubber plants. Chemical Engineers now had the training to build industries from the ground up. With funds from the government, the chemical industry was able to increase synthetic rubber production over a hundred fold. This synthetic rubber found uses in tires, gaskets, hoses, and boots; all of which contributed to the war effort.

High Octane Gasoline

As German tanks and bombers swept across Europe using Blitzkrieg tactics, it became evident that World War II would be a highly mechanized conflict. The Allies needed tanks, fighters, and bombers all supplied with large quantities of high quality gasoline. In supplying this fuel the American petroleum industry was stretched to its limit (See OIL).

However, the development of Catalytic Reforming in 1940 by the Standard Oil Company (Indiana) gave the Allies an advantage. The reforming process produced high-octane fuel from lower grades of petroleum (it also made Toluene for TNT). Because of the performance edge given by better fuel, Allied planes could successfully compete against German & Japanese fighters.

The Atomic Bomb

In the early 1900's scientists were busy exploring the atom. Einstein's mass-energy equivalence (E = m c2) showed that matter contained tremendous energy. By 1939 many scientists had succeeded in splitting atoms of uranium and some envisioned the possibility of a chain reaction. In 1942, Fermi and his co-workers produced the first man-made chain reaction under the University of Chicago. The success proved that an atomic weapon was possible, and the Manhattan Project was soon underway. However, despite these early successes, enormous technical obstacles still lay ahead.

Only certain materials underwent fission rapidly enough to be considered for an atomic bomb. Uranium 235, a very scarce from of uranium (only 0.7% of uranium is 235), and plutonium, an element that did not exist naturally, were two possible candidates. However, both elements were exceeding rare (or nonexistent) and had only been produced on tiny laboratory scales. For example, in 1942 only a milligram of Plutonium (1/28,000th of an ounce) was in existence.

Late in 1942, General Leslie R. Groves approached Du Pont to ask if they could build and operate a plutonium production plant. The company accepted the challenge, but due to intense secrecy, not even its top-level people new the whole story. During the next three years the "Hanford Engineering Works" was designed, built, and operated by chemical engineers. Equipment never before conceived of; had to be designed, built, and tested using great haste. Remote processing and control of the plutonium pile was a must. Even remote repair was put into place to fix equipment that broke down after becoming radioactive. The Hanford plant was big, complex, and dealt with the most dangerous materials on the planet. It demonstrates what is often expected of chemical engineers. Seemingly impossible problems must be solved quickly, correctly, economically, and safely, using knowledge of both chemistry and engineering.

Post-War Growth

During World War II, American chemical engineers where called upon to build and operate many new facilities; some never having been before conceived (see Atomic Bomb above). After the war, Germany's massive chemical industry lay in ruins while the Americans were still operating at full production. Never the less, the United States Government still feared the German chemical complex. They therefore dismantled Hitler's enormous I.G.Farben and out of it three new companies where created; BASF, Bayer, and Hoechst.

With foreign competition almost non-existent, the U.S. chemical industry continued its meteoric rise; with petroleum continuing to be the foundation of the industry. From fuels and plastics to fine chemicals, petroleum was where the action was. Some have even argued that World War I & II were fought exclusively for the control of petroleum resources (see "The Prize" by Daniel Yergin). The success of the petroleum industry has helped the chemical engineering profession greatly, and is one of the reasons today's wages are so high (see WAGES).

With America firmly leading the world in chemical technology, chemical engineering education began to change. Suddenly, the best way to discover the latest events in chemical technology was not to pick up a German technical journal, but instead to make those discoveries yourself. Chemical engineering was becoming more focused on science than on engineering tradition.

Two universities did much to encourage these events. At the University of Minnesota, Amundson and Aris began emphasizing the importance of mathematical modeling (using dimensionless quantities) in reactor design. And at the University of Wisconsin, Bird, Stewart, & Lightfoot presented a unified mathematical description of mass, momentum, and energy transfer in their now famous text, "Transport Phenomena." These events were far removed from the early days of the profession, when the possibility of eliminating most mathematical courses was strongly considered.

Today's Multi-Discipline

For the last twenty years, large changes have occurred in the American chemical industry. Most of the major engineering obstacles found in petroleum processing have been overcome, and petroleum is becoming a commodity industry. This means that employment opportunities for engineers in the petroleum industry are becoming few and far between.

Also, foreign competition has again picked up. Today the three largest chemical companies in the world are BASF, Bayer, and Hoechst (perhaps our government's fears where justified, see Post War Growth above; also it is important to point out that Japan does not represent a major chemical threat, instead the competition comes from Europe). While America's chemical industry can still compete, growth has slowed immensely. In short, the unprecedented economic success that followed World War II is coming to a close and economic realities are catching up with us (at least in the chemical industry).

However, the strong scientific, mathematical, and technical background found in chemical engineering education is allowing the profession to enter new fields that often lay in the white space between disciplines. The largest growth in employment is occurring in up-and-coming fields that show tremendous potential. Biotechnology, electronics, food processing. pharmaceuticals, environmental clean-up, and biomedical implants all offer possibilities for chemical engineers. The educational emphasis of the last twenty years has helped to realize these opportunities. Once again, chemical engineering education has responded to, and influenced, the industrial realities of the profession.

Table of Contents

The Struggle for Survival

Sulfuric Acid Production

"The end already...go back to the top."


Last updated on 10/26/00 by Wayne Pafko...

Copyright 2000, Wayne Pafko