Chemical Engineering : More than Chemistry or Reactions

Chemical engineering was developed more than 100 years ago in the industrialized nations and it
enabled high volume manufacturing of societal goods to improve the quality of life. This field of
engineering is finally being taught, albeit a little late, in Nepal. However, every time students and
faculties of this field introduce themselves as a chemical engineer, the very common response from
the people is “oh chemistry!!” or “You must be really good in chemistry.” The next common
response is “What kind of work would you do in a country with no good chemical industrial base?”
Although both statements are true to an extent, the incorporation of chemistry and some biology gives
chemical engineering the extensive academic base of all fields and allows for contribution in a wide
variety of fields than just chemicals. This piece is, thus, intended to shed some light on who chemical

engineers are, what roles they can assume for a developing economy like ours and hopefully pique
the interest of prospective high school graduates into a brand new and exciting field of engineering
that is finally available in the country.
Chemical engineers provide society with drinking water, food, medicine, paper, soap, petroleum
fuels, paint, plastic, polymers, fertilizers, computer chips, and many more seemingly mundane
everyday items. The mass production of food to sustain the ever-growing human population would
not have been possible without the high-volume production of fertilizers (e.g. urea), one of the
greatest inventions of the 20 th century. We often hear about urea shortages in our country and how it
leads to the loss of agricultural production. The urea production processes would not have been
possible without the continuous efforts of the chemical engineers. Similarly, drinking water (bottled
or tap) to feed the masses wouldn’t have been possible without the technologies and processes
developed by the chemical engineers. A more exciting product, computer chips, the integral
component of our smartphones and computers, are produced through a series of processes operated
and optimized by the chemical engineers. Furthermore, it will be chemical engineers who will play a
crucial role in developing and scaling up processes for high volume (more than billion doses)
manufacturing of corona virus vaccines when available. Hence, chemical engineers are the ‘process’
engineers who design, operate and optimize the series of processes involved in converting raw
materials into useful final products. It should be noted, however, that finished industrial goods are the
cumulative efforts of people from different realms of science and engineering and not just the effort
of a single group of people. This article is only intended to highlight the broad work domain of
chemical engineers rather than mere ‘chemicals’.


Chemical engineers differ from chemists in the scale of the work. Chemists work with research to
create new things on a small scale, while chemical engineers use this research to make things on a
profitable industrial scale. In fact, applied chemistry techniques such as dyeing and distillation as well
as glass and soap manufacturing have been practiced through the ages in small scale units. It wasn’t
until the industrial revolution in the late 1800s that the production moved from small scale to
continuous large scale units with the help of chemical engineers. The scale-up of laboratory or small
unit reaction to industrial-scale production is usually more than just making bigger flasks, burners or
adding more reagents (chemicals). It requires knowledge of chemistry, separation techniques, heat &
mass transfer, unit & mechanical operations, automated controls, economics and environmental
sustainability to name a few. Chemical engineers are equipped with this comprehensive knowledge to
convert chemicals, raw materials, living cells, energy into everyday useful forms and products at the
industrial scale.
Our country aims to become a middle-income economy by 2030. To realize this dream, it is
important that we start making (manufacturing) things on our own. The importance of setting up a
manufacturing base is especially true for the post corona period when a large number of the workers
are expected to return home and opportunities for the workers can be provided in the manufacturing

sector. In this regard, chemical engineers with their know how of plant operations and economics can
be instrumental in 1) identifying key items that can be profitably and sustainably manufactured in the
country and 2) designing, operating and maintaining the manufacturing plants for the said items. The
diverse chemical process plants are often a combination of a few operations such as drying, filtration,
reaction, distillation, evaporation and absorption, hence chemical engineers are useful in setting up or
operating almost all of the manufacturing plants. Chemical engineers can be instrumental for
identifying and designing new plants in areas of biofuels, natural products, pulp and paper, fertilizers,
specialty chemicals and agro-industries in Nepal.
The design for any chemical plant starts by creating process flow diagram (PFD) and process and
instrumentation diagram (P&ID) primarily done by chemical engineers. The diagram are made based
on the extensive material and energy balance and research to meet the product specifications. PFD is
the general arrangement of processes and equipment’s needed to convert raw materials into the
desired product. P&ID includes more details than PFD such as piping, major and minor flows, control
loops and instrumentation in addition to the equipment’s needed for the process. After the flow and
instrumentation diagrams and the underlying calculations are verified, chemical engineers carry out
equipment design, hazard and safety analysis, environmental impact and economic analysis
calculations. Once the design and analysis is approved by the clients, civil engineers start
construction based on the process layout, battery limit (area around the unit processes) design and
calculations. Similarly, mechanical engineers start equipment fabrication based on equipment design
calculations and electrical engineers start installing electrical lines and automated system based on the
P&ID diagrams. So, chemical engineers are at the core of designing and operating any manufacturing
facility.
For existing cement, brewery, steel or pharmaceutical industries in Nepal, chemical engineers can
help with process troubleshooting, automation and process optimization to reduce the cost and
maximize profitability in addition to maintaining the overall manufacturing process. They can be
useful for expanding or upgrading the existing manufacturing facilities. Moreover, engineers can help
develop pollution & quality control and energy efficiency measures in the existing processes to meet
governmental and international standards. Our home trained chemical engineers can be groomed to
slowly take over the responsibilities of the process, quality, research, validation and effluent
management from the foreign chemical engineers currently employed across Nepal in diverse
industries.
Chemical engineers can play a leading role in developing sustainable and economically practical
solutions for problems at the air- energy- water nexus. Issues related to water reuse, air pollution,
climate change, waste remediation, product recycling and green engineering all fall under the realms
of chemical engineering. The engineers can help design municipal and hospital waste treatment
facilities, water purification systems, chemicals and gas treatment systems and waste to energy
systems to name a few. Chemical engineers can aid in the development of alternative energy

technologies such as biogas, biofuels, solar and wind. Furthermore, they can help develop cost
effective energy storage, efficiency improvements and grid management solutions. 
The global fight for climate change and sustainable development will in part be driven by the efficient
and climate friendly processes and technologies developed by chemical engineers. The current
climate crisis is largely the result of incessant human consumption made possible by high volume
manufacturing developed by chemical engineers. The industrial processes were previously designed
to maximize production and ensure profitability without particular consideration for the environment.
However, with rising climate change concerns brought about by the manufacturing processes,
chemical engineers have taken the lead in developing mitigating technologies as well as environment
friendly manufacturing processes. In this regard, three way catalytic converter to reduce toxic gases
(carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides) and pollutants in exhaust gases from our vehicles and the process
for converting sulfur oxides (toxic gas from burning coal and oil) into gypsum wallboards instead of
releasing into air are some of the well-known mitigating technologies developed by chemical
engineers. In addition, chemical engineers are at the forefront of developing carbon capture
(absorption and stripping processes), energy recovery and optimization, and effluent treatment
systems for industries around the world to make our water cleaner and air more breathable.
Finally, chemical engineers can play a central role in the science and technology research and
development in the country. With a strong understanding of chemistry, physical laws and some
biology, chemical engineers make excellent researchers to solve challenges in the field of energy,
environment, food, climate change, life sciences, nanotechnology, biotechnology, electrochemical
systems (batteries), advanced materials and chemicals. To this end, chemical engineering researchers
at MIT are working to transform bacteria into living drug factories for treating diabetes. Similarly,
researchers from Princeton and Ohio State University are investigating the use of low temperature
plasma to help engines conserve fuel and reduce emissions. Furthermore, researchers at Brigham
Young University are working on ways to make components of electronic circuits using DNA as a
template. These are only a few illustrations of the otherwise, wide range of exciting research fields
led by chemical engineers. Thus, the field of chemical engineering encompasses nearly every aspect
of human life and the role of chemical engineers will increasingly become more apparent as the
country inches towards the path of sustainable economic prosperity

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(This article is shared by Kathmandu University Circle of Noble Chemineers, a Chemical
Engineering student’s club from Kathmandu University. They intend this article to be helpful for
engineering aspirants and enthusiasts. For more details, one can contact them at
facebook.com/kuconc via message or call.)

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