The Chemical Engineering Culture

The reason for this page is that there are similarities as well as differences from the world of computer programming.

The consequences of failure of chemical plant can be very serious, yet there are always pressures to build and operate plant cheaply. There have grown up methods for preventing design failure e.g Hazard Analysis, as a result of analysis of past failures.

The phenomena of fluid flow and chemical reaction are only partially understood, so that computer modeling can only be as good as the approximate equations used.

The systems of equations which can be generated can be very large, and understanding and comparing results is a large challenge.

To work with this there has evolved a culture which is often unaware that it is a culture at all. Most engineers do not spend much time reflecting on the nature of engineering and its history.

One of the things which we do in teaching chemical engineering is to ask students to study past accidents and the lessons which were learned from them, so that the reasons for how things have to be done to be safe do not get forgotten.

-- JohnFletcher

Is it fair to say that chemical engineering is on the whole more mature than programming? That is, how long has it been since there was a shift in CE as fundamental as the shift from mainframe-centric computing to microcomputer-centric computing?

The bigger change was from batch to interactive, if you ask me; not so much mainframe to PC. I didn't find doing FORTRAN or BASIC on mini-computers that much different than PC's. Mostly just different API's to learn and particulars of a given language and more powerful databases. The bottleneck has switched from equipment limitations toward UI/GUI limitations because sequential character menus were easy to program and easy to use. -t

Modern chemical engineering is built on the concept of unit operations, such as distillation, on the basis that these operations can be studied in general. I guess this concept started about 1900. Before then, each industrial process was studied separately. Since about 1950, modern automatic process control has made processes more tightly controlled. At the same time process hazards have been more closely identified. Computers have had a big impact on both control and simulation. Most process design is now done using special software. There is a change happening, with downsizing from very large plant to much smaller equipment for speciality chemicals. The large plant are still needed, but are now in different locations around the world, reflecting raw material supplies, changing demand and strategic needs.

Not all the problems have been solved. There are still accidents which kill people and have other serious effects, for example the BP accident in Texas and one near London where tanks filled with petrol caught fire and the explosion destroyed nearby offices.

To sum up, some parts of chemical engineering are quite mature and others are still evolving quite fast. -- JohnFletcher

What an understatement John! That fire had a smoke plume comparable to a large volcano eruption's. Look at some of the photos (,1518,389963,00.html [BrokenLink]), one of them has an uncanny resemblance to a volcanic plume and another has a sky filled with smoke from one horizon to the other. The most striking ones are numbers 2, 5, 9, 10 and 11. -- RK

I did mean large storage tanks - the sort which are landmarks. I did not know how well this accident would be known outside the U.K. Thanks for the reference, which I will pass on to a group of our first year students of chemical engineering who have been set a project to write a report on Buncefield, as it is known. A close relative used to work near there some years ago, so I know the location personally. -- JohnFletcher

Still "largest explosion since World War" is a big fire. See or and

This continues to be an item of interest. There has been legal action about the responsibility, and also a problem about contamination of groundwater because of the chemicals in the foam used to fight the fire. -- JohnFletcher

Back to: how long has it been since there was a shift in CE as fundamental as the shift from mainframe-centric computing to microcomputer-centric computing?

In the 1970s, the development of the HazOp? study by TrevorKletz? profoundly affected how early in a design process safety could be built in.

The chemical industry has a whole (not just, or even primarily, chemical engineers) had a big shift in the 1980s and 1990s to reduce environmental impact. Though few outside the industries noticed, fish and temperate forests seem to be better off for that, not to mention drinking water. Over a similar time period, incidents such as the horrific Bhopal disaster brought an emphasis in the industry on ManagementOfChange?, and the concepts OSHA's (US) ProcessSafetyManagement? regulation spread around the world.

There are culture shifts being touted in the 2000s: ProcessIntensification?, tiny chemical processes and nanotechnology in general, BioTechnology, and an emphasis on sustainability (which ties in with PeakOil and GlobalWarming.)

I don't know if any of these are as profound as the concepts of Unit Operations or indeed the mass balance ( .) Perhaps these recent realignments are a sign of the maturity of the discipline.

CategoryCulture CategoryEngineering

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