Chemical Engineer

The Job and What's Involved

Chemical engineers, also known as process engineers, design processes to transform raw materials into a wide range of useful products. Oil, for example, can be used to make fuels, plastics, textiles and cosmetics. A chemical engineer aims to design production methods that are safe, cost-effective and environmentally friendly.

Almost everything that is manufactured by humans involves the input of a chemical engineer at some stage. They work in sectors such as chemical and allied products, pharmaceuticals, energy, water, food and drink, materials, oil and gas, process plants, and equipment and biotechnology.

Biochemical engineers are chemical engineers who specialise in designing processes involving biological changes. They work in fields such as pharmaceuticals, foodstuffs and the treatment of waste.

Duties vary enormously but, in general, chemical engineers:

  • Decide on the best method of producing and purifying a product.
  • Ensure that the processes used are safe and cost-effective.
  • Decide what to do with any by-products formed during the procedure.
  • Find ways of reducing the number of unwanted by-products produced.
  • Find ways of recycling the energy generated in the process.

Some chemical and biochemical engineers are involved in research that aims to improve the future of the planet and its inhabitants. Projects include:

  • Tissue engineering (producing replacement human organs) and stem cell research (finding cures for diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson's Disease).
  • Transforming the way we produce energy without harming the planet (for example, by researching renewable energy such as wind and wave energy).
  • Developing a new way of producing iron without creating harmful by-products.
  • Making the world's water cleaner and reducing water shortages.

Some chemical engineers are involved in designing and constructing plants for mass production of a particular compound. They scale up the process that is used in the laboratory and design the plant with the help of computer models and simulations. Once the plant is in operation they may be involved in maintenance procedures, troubleshooting, repair and replacement, quality control, and health and safety issues, as well as ensuring that the plant runs profitably.

Chemical engineers often work in multidisciplinary teams with other engineers.

In general, chemical engineers in laboratories and research establishments work around 37 hours a week, but those involved in processing and operations may need to be flexible and occasionally work longer hours, especially when meeting deadlines. Shift and weekend work may be required in some jobs. There may be some opportunities for part-time work.

Work environments vary. Many chemical engineers are based in offices, but they may spend time outdoors, on factory floors or in laboratories. Laboratory work is often carried out under sterile conditions.

It may be necessary to wear protective clothing appropriate for the job.

The average starting salary for a graduate chemical engineer is around £24,000 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

There are opportunities for chemical engineers throughout the UK. Employers may be involved in oil and gas, chemical and allied products, food, energy or pharmaceuticals. Chemical engineers also work in central government departments, government agencies and companies that design and construct production plant. Employers range from large international companies and research organisations to smaller companies. Job prospects are very good and opportunities exist throughout the UK and overseas.

Vacancies are advertised in national newspapers, on professional engineering websites such as www.thecareerengineer.com, and in the journals Engineering & Technology and tce - www.tcetoday.com.

Education and Training

Most chemical engineers are graduates who have followed an accredited chemical engineering degree course. A Bachelor of Engineering (BEng) usually takes three years of full-time study and a Master of Engineering (MEng) usually takes four years full time. In Scotland, courses generally last one year longer. The website of the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) has details of UK universities offering accredited degree courses.

Entry to a degree course is usually with a minimum of two A levels/three H grades and five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), normally including maths, chemistry and an additional science, preferably physics or biology, or equivalent qualifications. Entry requirements may vary, so candidates should check with individual colleges or universities.

Candidates who do not hold the required qualifications in chemistry and maths may be accepted on to a foundation year before the first year of a chemical engineering degree course.

Courses combine lectures and seminars with laboratory work and other practical activities. Many universities offer sandwich courses during which students spend up to a year in industry in the UK or overseas.

Some chemical engineers study for postgraduate qualifications before entering employment. Entry to a postgraduate course requires a first degree in a relevant subject.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Chemical engineers are encouraged to apply for either chartered or incorporated status. To qualify as an incorporated chemical engineer, individuals should:

  • Have an accredited three-year degree or equivalent qualification, or do an accredited HNC/HND and then further learning, equivalent to one year of study.
  • Complete a period of initial professional development that includes practical training and professional engineering experience.
  • Successfully pass a professional review interview.
  • Gain corporate membership of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET).

To become a chartered chemical engineer, candidates must:

  • Hold an IChemE accredited MEng degree or hold an IChemE accredited BEng degree and complete further learning to Masters degree level through learning in the work place or further academic study.
  • Have at least four years' relevant training and experience.
  • Work, or have worked, in a responsible position in chemical engineering.
  • Nominate suitable referees to support their application.
  • Be at least 25 years old.

Chemical engineers who do not hold accredited qualifications should contact IChemE for information about alternative ways of obtaining chartered status.

It is important for chemical engineers to commit to a programme of Continuing Professional Development in order to keep their skills and knowledge up to date.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A chemical engineer should:

  • Have specialist scientific knowledge.
  • Have project management skills.
  • Be able to manage resources.
  • Have a thorough understanding of health and safety requirements.
  • Have good communication skills.
  • Have leadership skills.
  • Have a high standard of computer literacy.
  • Be logical with strong problem-solving and analytical skills.
  • Have some business and legal knowledge.

Your Long Term Prospects

There may be opportunities for experienced chemical engineers to become project leaders, or progress into senior management positions.

Some engineers may move into the commercial side of the business in areas such as banking, insurance or finance.

Get Further Information

enginuity careers (an Engineering and Technology Board initiative),
10 Maltravers Street, London WC2R 3ER
Tel: 020 7557 6432
Website: www.tomorrowsengineers.org.uk

Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE),
Davis Building, 165-189 Railway Terrace, Rugby CV21 3HQ
Tel: 01788 578214
Websites: www.icheme.org and www.whynotchemeng.com

The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET),
Savoy Place, London WC2R 0BL
Tel: 020 7240 1871
Website: www.theiet.org

SEMTA (Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies Alliance),
14 Upton Road, Watford, Hertfordshire WD18 0JT
Tel: 0800 282167
Website: www.semta.org.uk

Women's Engineering Society (WES),
The IET, Michael Faraday House,Six Hills Way,
Stevenage, Hertfordshire SG1 2AY
Tel: 01438 765506
Website: www.wes.org.uk

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