Design Project – the culmination of a chemical engineering degree

Many people do not understand the difference between science and engineering, and this includes many scientists and teachers.   

Science is finding out about the universe: engineering is about creating something new, so it is fundamentally about design, not for looks (usually) but for function.   

Something new that does what it is supposed to.  Hence a chemistry degree is fundamentally different from a chemical engineering one, not just in content, but in attitude. 

The Design Project (known as the Capstone Project in the USA) is the heart and purpose of the IChemE accredited chemical engineering degree.  Much of the prior courses (and often parallel courses) will provide either basic skills (e.g. mathematics) or specific techniques which might be applied.  It normally takes place in the third or fourth year. 

Typically, a group of students (6 to 10) will be tasked with designing a process for some purpose, then individually design some of the physical components.  The design of a process is the key chemical engineering skill.  The group usually develops a flowsheet with complicated movements of matter and energy (including recycle).  Initially these are just processes such as mixing, heating, cooling, reacting, crushing, separating (e.g. crystallization or distillation).  The exact equipment to do this will be designed later.  No process must be missed out, including waste disposal, water supply and any possible effluent.  The hazards of the materials (including any intermediates as well as all products) and the processes (e.g. high pressure, temperature) must be formally identified. 

They work by a mixture of group discussion and individual work: sharing out the work is an important part, as is collaboration.  The end result of weeks of work will usually be a joint report giving the overall process design and explaining the considerations of cost, location, environment.  This will be complemented by individual reports of students designing a section of the plant.  It may be a single item or several according to the complexity.  There will also be reports on the economics, safety and environmental protection which have been taken into consideration. 

For BEng students, the overall task is usually combines fairly conventional processes which have been taught, but they will still have to research for details.  For MEng students it can be more challenging, perhaps only based on a single research paper of a new reaction.  It may reflect a specialist option such as biotechnology which the students have chosen.  For the design of some enzymes or other specialist material, the plant to be designed may be quite small, but it is still that for full industrial production, not a laboratory one.  Even more so than the BEng students they will be expected to research and find out new things that they have not been taught


From the IChemE guidance for the requirements for a degree to be accredited 

Accreditation guidance V2.1 02 Draft 4 Sept 2019.docx ( 

“Students must display competence in chemical engineering design, which requires bringing together technical and other skills, the ability to define a problem and identify constraints, the employment of creativity and innovation. They must understand the concept of ‘fitness for purpose’ and the importance of delivery.” 

“In order to meet the learning outcomes associated with the systems approach, the design portfolio must include a major design exercise which addresses the complexity issues arising from the interaction and integration of the different parts of a process or system. It is expected that this major project will be undertaken by teams of students and that this will contribute significantly to the development of the students’ transferable skills such as communication and team working.” 

From the recommendations of the European Federation of Chemical Engineering, for the requirements of a chemical engineering bachelor degree to be recognised in different countries: 


“The graduates have the ability to: 

  • develop a basic design for products and processes according to specified requirements, which can include an awareness of non-technical – ethical, societal, health and safety, environmental, economic and industrial – considerations; 
  • choose suitable design methods and apply them; 
  • design products, processes and unit operations of mass and energy transformation using some awareness of the forefront of their graduation field.”

It also includes requirements for organising and carrying out projects; and teamwork.