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What is Chemical Engineering?

This is actually a vast question! So let me elaborate my


views about the chemical engineering profession
through a story. This tale is quite long but I hope you
will find it informative and interesting.
X is a chemical engineer. A chemical engineer par
excellence. One fine day, he is summoned by his boss
and given a new assignment. The chemists of the
company have found that if reactants A and B are
mixed, then the valuable product P will be formed. X's
boss tells him to engineer this reaction into being. And
so X sets to work.
1. Thermodynamics and Kinetics: Being a
healthy sceptic, X is not entirely convinced
about the chemists' calculations. So he first
studies the thermodynamics of the process to
understand the conditions at which it would be
feasible to carry out the
reaction. Temperature, pressure, composition, s
olvent nature ... all is variables which X can
adapt and fine-tune to the process at hand. He
also understands the factors that affect
the reaction rate to use them favourably. Apart

from the reaction being feasible and fast, he also


has to worry about side reactions, stability of all
concerned species and phase homogeneity.
These are complex calculations and so he uses
computational techniques and softwares to help
him in making decisions. He also requests the
chemists to double-check his results in some lab
experiments.
2. Targets and Material Balances: Once X is
satisfied that the reaction can be implemented,
he establishes targets and goals. The scope and
ambition of the process is decided at this step.
He identifies the sources of A and B - nearer the
better. If they're very far, he wonders if he can
make them himself. A few calculations give him
an estimate as to how much P will need to be
produced for economically viable operation,
and he deduces the quantities of A and B from
that as well. To help explain the concept of
material balances, X always likes to show the
following diagram:
3. Reactor Design: Now X turns to the heart of
the process, the reactor. He has briefly looked at
possible catalysts when studying the kinetics,
but this time he goes deeper. He plays around
with some molecular simulation tools to find
what catalyst could give the best results in terms
of conversion, yield and selectivity. He also

factors in the catalyst stability into his


calculations. Once he's done on this front, he
wonders what reactor design to use. A fixed
bed? A fluidized bed? A stirred tank? A
membrane reactor? Is it advantageous to
use multiple reactors? How large should these
reactors be? Of what material should they be
made? He pays special attention to the physical
phases and chemical natures of the participating
species while making this decision. When asked,
he shows some schematic reactor designs
labelled with typical chemical engineering
abbreviations:
4. Equipment Design: X realizes early on that just
the reactor isn't sufficient.
Unfortunately, A and B are not obtained in very
pure form and so he must do some 'preprocessing'. He considers a variety of techniques
such as washing with a solvent, selective
chemical reactions, filtration, crystallization,
distillation ... and chooses the one that is the
most suitable. These processes need special
equipment and he designs them accordingly.
There's also some 'post processing' he has to
accomplish, for P is not the sole product
obtained. So depending on the exact
requirements, he installs equipment
like absorbers, adsorbers or liquefies. To

simplify his task, he uses a computer which


returns him the design once he specifies the
layout. His distillation towers and gas
absorption scrubbers often look like what are
shown here:
5. Energy Balances: "Nothing comes for free" this is one of X's favourite lines. For effective
operation, he needs to supply energy to specific
equipment and take away energy from others.
He also learns that the reaction of interest
is exothermic and thus wants to make sure there
is no chance of hotspots forming in the reactor.
He has to decide whether he prefers fluidcarrying coils or jackets or resistive
heating or chemical heat carriers ... and also
how to ensure efficient heat transfer between
these devices and the equipment. Exchanging
heat between multiple streams is one of X's best
bets and so he develops a heat exchanger
network. He also has to consider declining
efficiency with time due to effects
like fouling or wearing out of mechanical parts.
Due to the large number of variables and
calculations, X relies on some special
computational tools, some aspects of which he
has tweaked and improved. His heat exchanger
networks are usually somewhat as shown below,
full of small symbols and fine print.

6. Piping and Instrumentation: To avoid high


levels of unconsumed reactants, X considers the
possibility of having a recycle stream for
multiple runs. A purge stream might also be
needed to avoid accumulation of inert
substances and impurities. He also explores
methods to transport the reaction mixture from
one equipment unit to another. This could be
achieved by gravity or using pumps or perhaps
even conveyor belts. He designs these as well
and optimizes the connecting pipes on the basis
of pressure drop and space considerations. He
also sets up measuring devices to monitor
important parameters like the temperature,
pressure, flow rate and composition during
operation, most of which he has designed
himself too. These are all compiled into a piping
and instrumentation diagram(P&ID), and X is
always immensely proud of these! Look at him
showing off one of his diagrams:
7. Control and Automation: It's important to
ensure that the system conditions stay within
certain limits for stable operation. This is
why X implements a large number of
sensors and actuators which enable him to
control the process. He has a large number of
options here as well, with different types and

mechanisms of controllers (PID, Adaptive,


Fuzzy logic etc.) as well as a variety
of valves with different configurations.
Also, X decides how much of this control
should be automated and how much of it should
be manually operated. During this process, he
keeps in mind his motto, "Safety first", for it's
better to be safe than sorry every time. Here's
one of X's photographs of a refinery control
room that he'd worked in:
8. Environmental Concerns: X is an
environmentally-sensitive engineer. And so he
makes sure that no potentially harmful
substances are released into the environment.
This requires special units or isolation measures
- he could employ methods like chemical
treatment, electrostatic
precipitation, combustion-dispersal or
controlled dumping. If possible, he also tries to
find a use within his own industry for any toxic
products that are produced. Here are some
images he shows to pictorially describe some
measures undertaken:
9. Alternative Energy Sources: X's boss often
tells him they will soon run out of oil. X doesn't
believe him because he is aware of the untapped

reserves of heavy oils but agrees that they pose a


threat to the environment. Hence, he too is often
on the lookout for alternative sources of energy
that can be used to run his operations. Being in a
closed environment, he can't directly take
advantage of renewable sources like wind and
water, but the prospect of biofuels excites him
for they could originate from natural sources
like sugarcane. He's trying to adapt his systems
to run using fuel cells which could be of
different types (PEM, methanol, solid-state, etc.)
and often looks at figures like the one below to
digest their variety and versatility:
10. Bioengineering Approaches: One of X's
biologist colleagues has also succeeded in
making him enthusiastic about the potential
of bioengineering. He now knows
about mutations and plasmids as well as the
advantages of using enzymes to carry out
reactions. Metabolic engineering is a new
coinage wherein he's learnt that one can change
the properties of organisms like bacteria to attain
desirable functionalities. The growing use of
computational models for cellular networks and
advancement in wet lab technologies has meant
that X also considers bioreactors whenever he is
given a task. This is why it's not uncommon to

see X poring over such cellular networks to


understand biological processes better:

11. New Materials: Another of X's colleagues


has enlightened him about new materials. He
has to come to learn of new membranes that can
filter better and improved materials that increase
adsorption efficiency. Polymers have found their
way into his dictionary and he is learning to take
advantage of their different properties. Bioinspired materials are also growing in
prominence by adapting the systems already in
existence in Nature and X keenly reads the latest
research on these, a schematic of which is
shown below:
12. Nanotechnology: X has also been alerted to
the advantages of using very fine particles for
industrial applications. Nano
emulsions and nanoparticle catalysts are hot
areas in the modern day. These particles also
have the ability to act as supports or carriers for
other chemicals as well as dispersing agents. He
carries out many simulations on these systems
using diverse types of nano systems, some of
which are shown here:

13. Scale Down: Before investing heavily in a


plant, X ponders about making aprototype to test
his analysis. He reduces the size by conserving
certaindimensionless groups across scales - the
choice of this dimensionless no. is different for
different equipment and constitutes an important
decision. Here are some basic dimensionless
numbers that X uses very often:
14. Microfluidics: Having taken a cue from
some of his chemist friends, X is now thinking
of microfluidic reactors. Using small tubes in a
controlled fashion can be advantageous in many
ways, especially for testing purposes. The
dynamics in such systems might also be very
different from that at the larger scales, so he is
actively studying the phenomenon observed
in microchannels and chips like the one shown
here.
15. Startup: One of the most important and
tense times for X is 'startup day'. Much of his
analysis has been for situations when things are
at steady state and he's had to rely
on correlations and simplifications to model
and analyze the events occurring during startup.
He ensures the feed is properly preconditioned,
the equipment are functioning properly, the

sensors are working and the controls are


responding before switching on the operation.
During this day, he monitors all readings
carefully and takes appropriate action, often
manually, to ensure things progress smoothly in
the run up to steady state.
16. Packaging and Delivery: Now the
product P is being steadily obtained but it needs
to be converted to the appropriate form and
delivered. Perhaps it needs to be made
into tablets, perhaps it needs to be packaged as
a powder, perhaps it needs to becompressed as
a gas. X calls the shots and ensures
proper formulation,handling and delivery. He
also expresses his sentiments about the product
appeal and target group to the designers and
promoters, and this picture is one of his prized
exhibits.
17. Operation and Troubleshooting: A year
after startup, the quality of product Phas
degraded. X is worried that one of the
equipment units is malfunctioning and runs
some detection tests - the product batches
obtained during this time have to be discarded.
He does not want to shut down the plant and
attempts to make somemodifications to the
existing conditions to improve performance. In
the meantime, he tries to identify and isolate the

faulty point to take necessary corrective action,


often taking the help of fault trees, event trees,
or the like.
18. Redesign: After a few more years, the
source of A has run out and a new source is
found and tapped. But X finds that the quality
and nature of this new feed material is different
from that of the earlier case. Unfortunately, it is
too expensive to dismantle the entire operation
and customize it anew so he must adapt to these
new conditions as best as he can. This might
need a change in operating conditions, or even
an add-on unit, and X has to make an
appropriate decision. Another year later, the
government issues a notice increasing the
minimum concentration of P in the product.
Some more changes and redesigning is
therefore necessitated to continue to conform to
norms without raising the price excessively. To
illustrate his point, X often shows this picture to
illustrate the different crude oil grades and the
resulting difference in properties:
19. Decommission: Many years have passed
and the process and system in place are now too
old. The system in place has to
be dismantled and it is old man X who is still in
charge. He decides which components can

be re-used, which can be modified and


adapted and which has to be sent away as scrap.
He chalks out a disposal plan and ensures that
all the raw material is consumed before
dismantling. The size and scale of this process
can be imagined when one looks at some of the
mammoth plants that X has setup and run, one
picture of which is shown here.
20. Reporting and Documentation: Through
all of this, X maintains an extensive and
exhaustive set of documents for both internal
and external use. Periodic presentations and
discussions enable him to improve the design
and efficiency of the processes that he is tasked
to 'engineer into reality'.

Moral of the Story: Chemical engineering is a


diverse field which transcends boundaries by
incorporating elements from many disciplines. A
chemical engineer could be devising or
characterizing catalysts, designing new and more
efficient plant equipment, improving control
strategies, formulating new fuels and energy sources,
engineering biological systems, innovating
novel materials, going meso or nano,

ameliorating packaging and transport, and much


more. A chemical engineer could also be attacking
fundamental questions in fluid hydrodynamics, solid
flows,chemical interaction modelling, plant startup
and shutdown, polymer theory,biosystem analysis,
and many other areas all of which have numerous
unsolved mysteries.
Hope you found this story interesting and enjoyable