What is Chemical engineering?

What is Chemical engineering?

In my view, Chemical Engineering is all about an integrated/ holistic understanding and exploitation of underlying unifying principles in “unit ops” (or building blocks) in a variety of transformation processes in chemical, materials, biological (and others) systems leveraging physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics and computational sciences (and others) to engineer/design/develop/ improve products, services and in general, solutions that deliver impact for society and the economy!

Key words:
  1. Understanding and exploitation
  2. Transformation processes (natural and man-made)
  3. “Unit ops” or building blocks
  4. Unifying principles, design, prediction
  5. Multidisciplinary (and hence the versatility of chemical engineering)
  6. Design, develop, improve, engineer, “synthesis”,  “Technology”
  7. Impact:  execution and delivery


  • Academic training in India emphasises 1-4 above but often 5-7 are neglected.
  • Industry (such as chemical industry) often emphasises the “routine” (something very important for efficient operation of plans and companies but quite boring for those aspiring for creativity)
  • It is important to note that chemical engineering skills are useful and used across many industries besides the chemical industry.  Chemical engineers contribute immensely in other industries such as energy and fuels, environment, materials, water and food processing, biotechnology, biomedical devices and diagnostics etc etc.

My opinion:

  • Early decades of 1900s saw the rise of chemical engineering with unifying principles relating to chemical plants being derived and used for designing and optimizing plants. The later part of the 20th century saw chemical engineering principles being applied to a variety of new fields and industry sectors. The character of chemical engineering departments changed dramatically.
  • It is my belief that this Century will be one where chemical engineers will need to re-invent themselves as technology innovators — people who will leverage their wide training to put together creative solutions for problems and unmet needs of society, and then help take them all the way to the market/ deployment. They will thus emphasize points 5-7.

(Excerpts from talk by V. Premnath at Azeotropy,  IIT- Bombay, 10 March 2013)

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