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Application Areas

Biomedical Therapies and Materials

Although many chemical engineers do not take courses in college biology, their knowledge of reactions and separations make them uniquely suited to working on problems on a cellular level.  In fact, a cell is a membrane separator, only allowing certain chemicals and materials to pass through into its interior; additionally, there are a plethora of chemical processes occurring in the cell, such as respiration and photosynthesis.  Thus, chemical engineering is often intertwined with biology and biomedical engineering, particularly with regard to harnessing the chemical machinery inside a cell, and developing and manufacturing “markers” for detecting cancer cells.  Additionally, their unique material engineering skills allow enable chemical engineers to design biodegradable scaffolds for culturing cells for medical implants and to provide key technology to study the human genome.

Development of alternative energy systems

Fossil fuels are non-renewable resources that have environmental implications as they are used to power our industrialized society.  Chemical engineers develop alternative fuels and energy systems that allow our dependence on fossil fuels to be reduced.  For example, the polymer electrolyte fuel cell is one promising technology that has already been shown capable of powering automobiles.  Fuel cells are subject to the same general operating principles as a typical battery used in our household devices, the difference being that fuel is continually provided in the form of hydrogen and oxygen, so fuel cells do not run out of power.  Electrochemistry is the fundamental science behind these devices, and thus chemical engineers are well suited to study and improve batteries.  One of the key issues in unlocking the full potential alternative energy systems is energy storage—needed when the sun goes down, the wind does not blow, or excess energy from alternative sources is received and needs to be captured for later use.  Efficient batteries are essential to the development of energy systems needed to meet the needs of society.   Chemical engineers not only study and improve processes for the electrochemical conversion of energy, but also create novel materials essential for the improvement of these storage devices.

Reducing the Environmental impact of Technology

Chemical engineers use their knowledge of chemical purification to make sure that the output streams from processes are safe for the environment.  If water is polluted, we design processes to purify that water, and we can do until virtually all of the pollutant is removed. When a smokestack emits carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide which may form acid rain later on, we can design process units to remove these undesirable gases.  We meet government and ethical constraints that require fractions of contaminants to be reduced to mass fractions in the parts per million and parts per billion range.  Chemical Engineers are experts at using most efficiently the wide array of existing separation techniques to protect the environment, combine such techniques to accomplish novel separations, and design new processes to meet virtually any constraint. 

Transformation of Raw Materials into Essential Chemicals

Chemical engineers are experts at developing processes for transforming raw materials into the vast array of high-value chemicals required by modern society. They work in multidisciplinary teams to create novel materials that are at the heart of virtually every product and service that enhances our quality of life. Examples include nano scale composites, pharmaceuticals, plastics, fibers, metals, and ceramics.