Chemical engineers apply chemistry to design and develop chemicals and biochemicals. They develop the equipment and processes needed for chemical production and test chemicals to determine side effects. Chemical engineers are also involved with the design and production of new sources of energy, clothing, food, paper, and electronic goods such as televisions and radios. They can work in biotechnology or health care. Chemical engineers apply their knowledge of physics, math, chemistry, and electrical and mechanical engineering to complete their work. They can specialize in a specific field, for example, nanomaterials, or a specific chemistry principle, such as oxidation. Chemical engineers must be aware of how chemicals affect human health and the environment.
Chemical engineers hold over 30,000 jobs nationwide in the United States.
They spend the majority of their time working in laboratories or offices. However, they may need to visit worksites, such as refineries or industrial plants, in order to diagnose and solve problems in the site’s operations. Chemical engineers may need to travel regularly, visiting sites in the U.S.A. and all over the globe.
The table below shows the industries which employ the most chemical engineers, as well as the distribution of engineers among those industries:
- Architectural, engineering, and related services – 16%
- Scientific research and development services – 12%
- Basic chemical manufacturing – 12%
- Resin, synthetic rubber, and artificial synthetic fibers and filaments manufacturing – 7%
- Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing – 5%
The vast majority of chemical engineers work 40 hours per week.
Students who want to become a chemical engineer should study chemistry, biology, and physics, as well as trigonometry, algebra, and calculus.
A bachelor’s degree is required to start out as a chemical engineer. Undergraduate students of chemical engineering study and practice in classrooms, laboratories, and the field for 4 years.
Certain universities also offer five-year programs in chemical engineering. Students who complete these programs receive not only a bachelor’s degree, but a master’s degree as well. Engineers who hold a master’s degree or higher are able to teach at universities and work on research and development projects.
Some students get the opportunity to receive on-the-job training while they study, through cooperative programs offered by their school. These cooperative programs, which combine university learning with industry training, give students a valuable opportunity to pay for school while gaining practical experience in their field.
These university programs in chemical engineering (also known as chemical and biomolecular engineering) are evaluated by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), and include classes in biology, physics, and chemistry. The programs teach students how to analyze, design, and control biological, physical, and chemical processes through the application of these sciences.
The median salary of a chemical engineer is more than $90,000. The median salary is the salary at which 50% of the workers earned more and 50% earned less. The lowest 10% of engineers earn less than $56,000, and the highest 10% earn more than $139,000.
The following table shows the industries which employ the most chemical engineers, as well as the median salary of chemical engineers in those industries:
- Scientific research and development services – $94,640
- Basic chemical manufacturing – $92,590
- Architectural, engineering, and related services – $91,010
- Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing – $90,490
- Resin, synthetic rubber, and artificial synthetic fibers and filaments manufacturing – $84,940
Most chemical engineers work 40 hours a week.
It’s estimated that job prospects for chemical engineers will grow by 6% in the next decade. This growth is slower than usual, when compared to the average occupation. The need for chemical engineering occupations is closely tied to the need for manufacturing industries and the products they make. The rate of employment for chemical engineers will be dependent on their ability to keep up with the rapid pace of change in technology.
Because the work of chemical engineers is demanded in large part by manufacturing organizations, the rate of employment for these engineers is economically linked to the United States manufacturing industry in general.
Chemical engineering is playing a vital role in the development of nanotechnology, biotechnology, and alternative energies. As these new technologies emerge, the need for chemical engineers is expected to go up as a result.