The History of Chemical Engineering

An Origin Story

The History of Chemical Engineering

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Chemical engineering is one of today’s broadest and most in-demand engineering disciplines. Chemical engineers work in a variety of industries, including energy, mining, chemical production, food production, and water treatment. Because of their diverse skillset and the industries in which they work, chemical engineers are highly sought-after.

There is no set definition of what chemical engineering is because of how broad chemical engineering is and the diversity of industries in which chemical engineers work. A good definition might be “the union of chemistry, physics, biology, mathematics, and economics to refine and add value to raw materials and to develop and optimise chemical processes, often at an industrial level”. This definition captures the disciplines relied upon by chemical engineers and the key functions of the discipline.      

The chemical engineering discipline is less than 150 years old, yet still has a fascinating history. From manufacturing dyes and perfumes in small batches to the largest chemical plant in operation today, this discipline has evolved by leaps and bounds in a relatively short time.

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Chemical engineering: early origins

Although the chemical engineering field owes its existence to Democritus, a Greek philosopher who proposed the concept of the atom around 440 BC, this event technically relates to chemistry. The proposal of an atom led to further developments in chemistry throughout the ages, eventually culminating in the advent of industrial chemistry. Industrial chemistry is where the story of chemical engineering truly begins.

Before the Industrial Revolution, industrial chemicals were produced via batch production, limited by the amount of reagents used to produce them. The Industrial Revolution created a serious demand for industrial chemicals and strained the limited resources produced by batch production. Something needed to be done so that resource production could keep up with the newly inflated demand.

The solution soon came, as society shifted away from batch towards continuous production, such as can be done with an assembly line. This allowed for the production of more goods at a much lower cost. Enough industrial chemicals could thus be produced to meet the needs of a newly industrialized world. Large-scale manufacture was born.

Industrial chemistry was recognized as the production of valuable products from raw materials via chemical and physical processes. Developing and controlling these processes, however, was viewed as separate. This separate discipline eventually became known as “chemical engineering”.

The father of chemical engineering: George E. Davis

The chemical engineering industry was born in 1878 when George E. Davis, an Englishman, visited numerous chemical works in his role as a chemical inspector. His visits allowed him to identify the idea of unit operations, a core concept in chemical engineering in which a chemical process can be further broken down into operations such as distillation or crystallization. Because of this discovery, he is widely regarded as the father of chemical engineering. He was also responsible for coining the term “chemical engineering”, using it to describe an area of engineering that addressed the chemical industry’s problems.

Davis’ contributions to the discipline of chemical engineering do not stop there. Through his consulting business, he became well versed in chemical engineering concepts. This led him to found the Chemical Trade Journal in 1887 where he regularly published his ideas on chemical engineering. The articles in the Journal, which were mainly on British chemical industry operating practices, served as the basis for a famous series of 12 lectures at Manchester Technical College in 1887.  

Davis’ work in his consulting business and the contents of his lecture series became the basis for his most famous publication: the Handbook of Chemical Engineering, published in 1901. Among other things, this textbook introduced the concept of unit operations (although not named as such until 1915 by Arthur D. Little) and was where he first used the term “chemical engineering”.

Davis also tried to rename the Society of Chemical Industry, a London-based society for chemists, as the Society of Chemical Engineers. That name quickly faded into obscurity as members of the Society of Chemical Industry resisted the name change. However, Davis’ efforts weren’t for naught. It was recognized that an association for chemical engineers should be formed. Today, the two most well-known are the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and the Institution of Chemical Engineers. 

Recognizing chemical engineering as a profession

Chemical engineering started to become a recognized profession when formal chemical engineering education was developed. There were courses in industrial chemistry and other areas of chemistry, but none which specifically tackled chemical engineering concepts.

The world’s first four-year curriculum in chemical engineering was developed in 1888 by Lewis M. Norton, a chemistry professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was inspired both by the advancement of the German chemical process industry and by Davis’ lecture series.

Norton died in 1893 having seen students graduate from his program. The first class had seven graduates. Frank H. Thorpe took over the program and worked to refine it. In 1898, he  published the first chemical engineering textbook: Outlines of Industrial Chemistry. While Davis is viewed as the father of the discipline of chemical engineering, Norton and Thorpe can be considered to be the fathers of chemical engineering education. 

The first publication dedicated to chemical engineering, The Chemical Engineer, came about in 1903. This publication included articles on industrial chemistry and chemical engineering. In 1908, the first association dedicated to chemical engineering, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers was formed after members of the American Chemical Society recognized the need for a separate association for chemical engineers. When the Institute was formed, it had fewer than 1,000 members; today, it has more than 60,000 members.

the history of chemical engineeringFurther developments in industry

As the industrialized world’s hunger for resources grew, the field of chemical engineering evolved to produce these resources more safely and more cheaply than ever before. Chemical engineers were needed to design and optimise the equipment and chemical processes required to produce these resources.

Chemical engineers also had to figure out how to build plants required by novel processes to manufacture products at a scale never seen before. The Haber-Bosch process is an example of one of these novel processes. It was the first economically viable process for directly synthesizing ammonia from hydrogen and nitrogen. It was so significant that its development won Fritz Haber the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918. Suddenly untold amounts of ammonia could be produced, and huge chemical plants were needed to keep up with demand.

Today, the developments and achievements in the chemical engineering industry would have been unheard of when the profession originated less than two centuries ago. Raw materials are being refined and valuable outputs are being produced at a gargantuan magnitude. Sadara, for example, a chemical plant in Saudi Arabia and the largest chemical plant in the world, has a production capacity of 3 million tons per year. What could be produced using batch production before the Industrial Revolution is microscopic when compared to a plant of this size.

The future of chemical engineering

Chemical engineers will always be in demand. As the world continues to develop in terms of population and technological advancement, their expertise will be required to help solve challenging problems such as energy demands and food production. Solutions to these problems will require innovation, ingenuity, and imagination—none of which are in short supply with chemical engineers.

A chemical engineer’s skills are broadly applicable in many areas, so even in burgeoning industries, they will be welcomed with open arms. With new technologies constantly on the horizon, chemical engineers will always have exciting careers waiting for them!