Introducing the Education & Technology Theme

Foundations of chemical engineering education

One of the great achievements of chemical engineering has been its success in taking a laboratory scale batch process and converting it into a large scale continuous industrial facility; our lives have improved beyond measure as a consequence. WW1 demonstrated the importance of chemical engineering, and, as well as stimulating the foundation of the IChemE, it also encouraged colleges in several countries to introduce chemical engineering courses as an add-on to chemistry degrees.

The birth of the profession, and a dedicated field of study to train engineers, dates back to 1901 and George Davis who published A Handbook of Chemical Engineering, in which he describes this new concept as “the assembly of physical operations (now known as unit operations) adapted to materials processing on a scientific basis rather than as industrial chemistry or chemical technology.”

From the outset, a core mission of the IChemE was to establish proper education pathways for the new generation of engineers.  Soon, membership was only permitted after passing its exams, which were held in several countries.  In 1934 the degree courses at Imperial College, Kings College and University College of London were recognised as providing exemption from these exams. WW2 again sparked interest in chemical engineering and the IChemE's 1945 publication "A Degree Course in Chemical Engineering" became the basis for degrees in the UK and other countries which met membership requirements, including what is known as the Design Project.

In Australia, pioneer educator Professor Owen Potter (Monash University) was one of Australia’s first teachers to embrace the seminal text Transport Phenomena (Bird, Stewart and Lightfoot), and used it to take students beyond conventional empiricism. Potter taught a broad range of topics, including mixing and reaction of raw materials, separation of products, process control, process safety, environmental protection and project economics. His education innovations drew attention to the Australian experience. IChemE member Hubert Fossett took time out to visit Monash during a business trip to Australia in 1963, leading to the establishment of the Australian branch of IChemE, of which Owen Potter was a founding member.

Chemical engineering was spreading around the world, with established degrees at the University of Dar es Salaam, the oldest and biggest university in Tanzania (1979) and the University of Malaya, which commenced its undergraduate programme of chemical engineering in 1974. Since then, 25 other programmes have been established in the Malaysia, with IChemE enjoying a very strong presence in the education community there. South Africa was one of the first countries in obtaining IChemE accreditation.

Over the last 50 years, chemical engineering degrees – teaching knowledge of several disciplines from complex process, production, separation, control, presentation, environmental protection, and safety – have built expertise across many countries, helping build economies through contributions to local industries.

An ever-changing experience

Prior to the digital revolution (1969-1989), scientists and engineers relied on slide rules, logarithmic tables, empirical data charts, chemistry and chemical engineering handbooks and text books. Internet access and the explosion of reference material has facilitated process engineering, however, there remains a heavy reliance on engineers to understand design.

Universities are often known for challenging the status quo, but they are also a mirror to broader social change. The latter is illustrated by the uptake of the profession by women in the second half of the 1900s. In the early 1900s there only very few female chemical engineers, but from the late 1970s women became a regular component of the student cohort. Currently, women comprise around 30% of the chemical engineering graduates in most countries, the highest percentage of all engineering disciplines and this is reflected in the work place.

The industrialisation of developing countries has also been seen an uptake in chemical engineering education, for example in Africa and Asia. However, the challenge now is to support these countries to improve prospects for graduate engineers, rather than the brain drain which can occur when education is seen as a fast track to a new life elsewhere.

The 21st Century has heralded paradigm shifts in molecular biology, biotechnology and synthetic biology, and along with this a fundamental shift in chemical engineering and what defines it. This is most apparent in the USA, where chemical engineers work closely with biotechnologists.

Developments in education and technology

The future chemical engineer will be dealing with complex, ill-defined problems, and students need to be trained accordingly. Along with the traditional disciplines, data analytics and digitalisation will be important, as will discussions on ethics, philosophy, and communication. The new engineer will also be under more pressure to understand social, historical, and business perspectives. Graduates need to be aware of their broad responsibility to society, not only on providing technical solutions.

Not just a new scientific frontier, synthetic biology raises many ethical and moral questions. AI and big data are further examples of the complex tool box with which engineers will need to be familiar. Increasingly, undergraduates will be transdisciplinary, not subject specific. Perhaps small-scale chemical engineering will be the future, for example small farming in tower blocks and micro power grids.

As old problems are solved, new challenges emerge, and thus the profession evolves. Professional societies have a duty to shape what is expected of chemical engineers, equipping them with enough knowledge and skill to continue to apply their creative problem solving for a new generation.

Education and Technology Blog

Read this blog from IChemE member John Kenez who picks out his choices of elements to celebrate, communicate and inspire from this theme.