The world’s first chemical engineering course was delivered by George Davis at the University of Manchester in 1887. Courses were gradually developed elsewhere, the first USA course being at MIT in 1891 and at the time of the IChemE's creation in 1922 were also in place at Imperial College London (John Hinchley and William Bone), with the first records on unit operations being taught (a concept widely attributed to Davis) at around the same time. Degree courses gradually spread across the USA, Europe, Australasia and then Asia, with the capstone ‘design project’ becoming a standard part of every course.
The nature of the courses evolved as the subject and technology aids developed. In the 1970s greater access to computers meant that programming became essential in chemical engineering degrees to solve the overly complex problems being incorporated into the courses. In the 1980s the introduction of spreadsheets on computers transformed the vastly important task of mass balance of the many elements and compounds through a typical chemical engineering plant. Computer Aided Design became well established in the 1990s with Computer Drawing replacing pen and pencil, and process simulators replacing both spreadsheets and manual programming for easier and faster quantitative consideration of process options. The 2000s saw increased use of the internet and intranets in teaching and of course in 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the use of online learning, teaching and assessment.
Today, IChemE accredits degree programmes at 65 Universities across the world.
Chemical engineering graduates are highly prized, working in such diverse sectors as energy, food & drink, water, pharmaceuticals, and transport.
Chemical engineers are set to play a significant role in delivering the energy and digital revolutions. Chemical engineering educators will be faced with increased challenges of building on the changes stimulated by COVID-19, with increased knowledge being imparted online perhaps with face-to-face time used more for problem solving and creativity – how to embrace and exploit rapidly changing technology options will be a continuing issue.
Preparing chemical engineering graduates for an increasingly broader choice of career opportunities, both technically in more diverse industries and across discipline boundaries to medicine, healthcare and other branches of engineering, increased opportunities in entrepreneurship and the even wider use of chemical engineering skills in the banking, policy, and political sectors. Increasing awareness of and accessibility to the discipline amongst young people of all backgrounds will be essential for the health of the discipline and enabling it to rise to the urgent societal challenges that need addressing by chemical engineers over the decades ahead.
Major technology innovation has underpinned chemical engineering’s development as a discipline from its origins in the early 1900s. The pillars on which these have grown are the unit operations that still provide the backbone of all chemical and materials manufacturing processes (bottom up) and the process systems approach (top down) that takes an integrated approach to optimisation and design of an overall plant, on all length-scales from molecular components to supply chains, and to any system from energy supply to national infrastructure and vaccine supply, to take particularly relevant current examples. The challenges and opportunities for the future will in part come from extending these principles for new technology in areas new to chemical engineers, or to address in an integrated way societal challenges. Product as well as process innovation will be needed with chemical engineers best placed to exploit the synergies of the two in influencing and manipulating the outputs. Computing capability has changed what it means to be an engineer, shifting from approximations, dimensionless constants etc. to a world where rigorous modelling is much more accessible. Chemical engineering in a digital, low-carbon and more sustainable world will produce technology changes and innovations to do things in a new way, with smarter products and smarter processes.
Also, the shift from data and information scarcity (uncertainty & ambiguity) to data surplus and even overload (analytics and capacity to interpret) will also change what it means to be an "engineer". Targets for new generic transformational technologies will therefore be ‘bug data’ and the digital era with all that ML (Machine Learning) and AI will bring, smarter devices as well as materials, and re-inventing chemical manufacturing in a sustainable manner with all the opportunities for re-set that this will present.