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Sphero's Guide to Chemical Engineering: What Is Chemical Engineering?

Engineering is a massive field, full of many engineering types and career options that are as life-changing and rewarding as they can be lucrative. One of the most engaging of these fields is chemical engineering — where science, math, and creative problem solving come together.

What is chemical engineering?

At the basic level, chemical engineering is the study of how chemicals are produced, as well as how chemicals can push forward how things are manufactured through advanced chemical processes.

If that sounds like a short summary, don’t be fooled. Chemical engineering is actually one of the most varied and diverse branches of engineering in the world. Without it, very little of what we use in our modern world would have had any chance of existing.

Chemical engineering means working with not only the properties and potential of raw materials, but also designing the machines, procedures, and technologies that will make use of them.

Chemical engineering is therefore not only a chance to work at the forefront of how things are made today — but potentially even the chance to shape and discover how things are created tomorrow.

Chemical engineering has a rich history – but it’s a surprisingly recent one. The Handbook of Chemical Engineering, published in England by George E. Davis in 1901, is considered by many to be the cornerstone book from which all our modern chemical engineering disciplines, as used today, first emerged.

What do chemical engineers do?

Careers in chemical engineering might sound pretty easy to understand at first, but students oftentimes find that the sheer variety of what goes into this engineering profession is far more diverse than they realized.

That’s because chemical engineering involves so many approaches to making use of our planet's materials — both organic and manmade. Those processes touch people’s lives in different ways, too. Chemical engineering is as important in perfecting fuel economy gasoline for cars as it is in fine-tuning the ingredients of a breakthrough pharmaceutical drug.

The common thread uniting all this highly varied work is how people qualified in chemical engineering combine their knowledge of biology, physics, math, and, of course, chemistry to solve society’s problems.

As you might have noticed, the world has plenty of problems these days, and that means chemical engineering is a solutions-oriented skill set that’s more in demand than ever before. Although its exact sciences were only codified in writing back in the 1900s, chemical engineering has been the backbone of our growth as a species from gasoline and gunpowder to penicillin and food preservatives.

You’ll find that chemical engineering graduates go on to work in a wide variety of sectors. It’s easy to assume that chemical engineering is used by heavy industry, like the energy sector or in developing new materials for manufacturing, and that’s right.

Yet you’ll also find that chemical engineering goes into the commercial sector just as proactively, from the ingredients in hair care products to the formula for an over-the-counter headache medicine.

What skills do chemical engineers need to have?

Keeping those grades sharp is half the battle when it comes to chemical engineering, as you’ll find that many of the soft 21st-century skills also apply to this engineering profession.

A key chemical engineering skill is technology literacy. That means not only knowing your way around a computer but also the capacity to understand how they operate at a broader level. While you may not need coding knowledge, technology literacy helps you adapt to new, specialized computer systems that chemical engineering employers will expect you to use in your day-to-day work.

What’s exciting is that many of these computer systems will be helping you to simulate any breakthrough ideas that your science and math knowledge have inspired in you. For example, some of the most advanced materials on Earth are created not just with chemical engineering, but with computer-assisted design (CAD) capabilities.

However, you’re not in this game alone. It’s far more likely you’ll be working with a team of people who are also qualified in chemical engineering. That means communications skills, active listening and the ability to clearly report your findings for your colleagues to act on will be key.

Likewise though, you’ll often need to tell people who are not educated in chemical engineering what you have found, and that makes effective communication even more important. If you try and explain your findings or ideas in the same language you’d use with other workmates who are proficient in chemical engineering, all you’re likely to inspire in other coworkers is confusion.

Breaking down those ideas into easy and relatable data will take a strong balance of logic and creativity. Similarly, using that talent for inventiveness with a pragmatic side means you’ll always be asking the right questions, and understand how chemicals will interact with one another well before any experimentation.

Job Outlook for Chemical Engineers

While chemical engineering is fascinating, is it worth developing your skills in this area if employers aren’t looking for them? On that front, you’ve no need to worry. Chemical engineering is a vital core element of everything we do in today’s society, and that means chemical engineering qualifications are in great demand in the job market.

If you want a career in STEM that takes you places literally, and not just figuratively, chemical engineering has a lot to offer. Demand worldwide means top salaries can be commanded in the United States, Canada, Japan, Germany, Australia, and plenty more.

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that chemical engineering professionals earned salaries of over $50 per hour, or $105,000 per year on average, as of 2021.

The Bureau also reports that there are 20,300 chemical engineering jobs active as of 2020, and that the average growth rate for chemical engineering jobs annually is 9%. That’s 1% above the national average for all jobs’ growth rates, showing a healthy rising demand for chemical engineering skills in the United States.

How To Become a Chemical Engineer

A big part of finding success in chemical engineering comes from perfecting that balance between academic knowledge — math, engineering, science, and technology — with hands-on experience gained from real-life STEM projects or internships.

As far as your studies are concerned, the best shortcut into chemical engineering qualifications is to study algebra, trigonometry and calculus, but also sciences like physics, biology and chemistry.

Graduating in chemical engineering is a four-year commitment, but you pack a lot into that time. Not only will you be spending time in class, but also be working directly on practical projects and, in many cases, undertaking fieldwork to support your grades.

As you grow in your chemical engineering career, you’ll begin working directly under those more experienced than yourself and eventually become just such a leader yourself. When that time comes, you’ll use your chemical engineering knowledge to help the next generation of graduates keep pushing the possibilities forward.

Conclusion: Chemical Engineering 

Chemical engineering is a wide-ranging profession, yet one in which your natural curiosity and capabilities with technology and science will be handsomely rewarded.

With these qualifications, you’ll have skills that have the potential to change the world for the better.

Are you passionate about science, technology, and changing the world? Sphero provides a jumpstart on developing STEM skills so that you can get ahead on your path to becoming a chemical engineer. Learn more by exploring our robots and activities.