Most Common Questions and Misconceptions of Chemical Engineering

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CHE101

After 2 years of being a ChemE student here at Ryerson, I’ve spent a fair share of time learning the fundamentals of my discipline. However, I’ve also heard the same questions and misconceptions about Chemical Engineering over and over again. Friends, family, and even other engineers seem to be confused at what exactly we do, so I’m here to help sort that out! Let this be the article that you send to your confused friend or family member when they ask any of the following questions, because I’ll put down my own (monopoly) money to bet that you’ve already been asked some of these. So let’s cut to the chase, here are top questions and misconceptions about Chemical Engineering:

  1. What exactly is Chemical Engineering?

Simply put, Chemical Engineering is a discipline of engineering that involves designing processes to produce, transform, and transport materials. A traditional example of this would be the process of extracting crude oil from the Earth and then transforming it into gasoline. To manage a process like this or any other Chemical Engineering process, students must have a strong understanding of math, physics, chemistry, and even biology.

Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/R_GpfM2-4ng 

  1. Do Chemical Engineers take a lot of chemistry courses?

So this is a constant question and misconception I’ve encountered so let me answer right away by saying no, we don’t take a lot of chemistry courses. At Ryerson specifically, ChemE’s only have 3 chemistry classes: General Chemistry (CHY 102), General Chemistry Laboratory (CHY 211), and Organic Chemistry (CHY 224). The focus of most Chemical Engineering classes are physics and math-related. 

  1. What’s the difference between a Chemical Engineer and a Chemist?

This is something I was even asking myself when I was considering what university programs I should apply to and I wish someone gave me a straight answer. So bear with me for a little bit while I explain the difference in between these degrees and what their jobs look like.

First, in a Chemistry degree there’s a strong focus on chemistry (I know I’m pointing out the obvious but stay with me) that spans beyond general and organic chemistry. This includes courses in physical chemistry, analytical chemistry, biochemistry, and inorganic chemistry. In a Chemistry degree, the student gets a very deep understanding of how chemical reactions work. 

On the other hand, a Chemical Engineering degree gives the student fundamental knowledge in chemistry but focuses primarily on applied math and physics. This degree includes courses like calculus, thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, heat transfer, and mass transfer. Overall, the combination of these courses gives the student the knowledge to apply chemistry in engineering processes.

Here’s the key difference between these professions – scale up. This means taking a small chemical reaction and reproducing it on a large scale. This is the life of a Chemical Engineer, and far from the practices of a Chemist. To apply this in a realistic scenario, imagine that a company is making a brand new laundry detergent. The Chemist would be in the lab formulating the detergent, and studying its chemical composition to ensure that it performs well and is safe to use. Once the Chemist has found the best detergent formula, that knowledge is passed on to the Chemical Engineer to determine how that process performed in a lab can be scaled up to operate in a chemical plant.

In summary, Chemists have a very strong understanding of chemistry and work on a small scale, in environments such as labs. Chemical engineers have a fundamental understanding of chemistry and a strong knowledge in applied math and physics that helps them run chemical processes at a large scale.

  1. What industries can Chemical Engineers find employment?

The title of Chemical Engineering may seem niche, but this discipline of engineering is quite versatile! Listed below are some of the industries that enlist the work of Chemical Engineers:

  • Petrochemicals 
  • Food Production
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Cosmetics
  • Industrial Chemicals 
  • Electronics
  • Pulp and Paper
  • Polymers
  • Biotechnology
  • Manufacturing
  • Environmental Health and Safety
  • Alternative Energy (ex. solar panels)
  • Nuclear Energy

And with that, we’ve made it through some of the biggest questions and misconceptions of Chemical Engineering! I hope your confusion has been cleared up and maybe you learned something new along the way too. If you’d like more info, check out the resources I’ve listed down below!

Resources of you to visit:

https://www.ryerson.ca/calendar/2020-2021/programs/science/chemistry/

https://www.ryerson.ca/calendar/2020-2021/programs/feas/chemical/

https://www.aiche.org/k-12/what-do-chemical-engineers-do

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