Chemical Engineering and Current Education in the U.S.
The chemical industry is the largest industry in the world. It is more than four times bigger than the second largest industry, the automobile industry, in terms of annual output value and it is still growing at a rate of more than ten percent each year. The chemical industry is related to all aspects of human life, such as food and water, transportation, and architecture. It has been developing rapidly since the 19th century and is relatively well-developed with a high level of industrial automation, which means many fewer workers are needed than before. On the other hand, according to a survey in 2012, 52% of employers in the U.S. claimed that it is difficult to find educated workers or engineers.
Technically speaking, there is still a great deal of room for the industry to improve. For example, we used to extract oil from underground where there were big reserves of oil. But now in many locations, what we have is only oil inside the cracks of rocks. But how do we extract that portion of oil in a cost effective way? Another example is that whenever we produce something, we produce a byproduct at the same time. Given the situation that we are running out of many raw materials, like oil, how do we minimize the amount of byproduct or make proper use of them? Or how do we recycle and reuse as much as we can after product utilization? And since many products are produced under extremely high temperature and pressure, developing new catalyst can lower the temperature and pressure needed in order to save energy and equipment cost.
First we need to turn the possibilities into reality. That’s why we need chemical engineering research. Conventional chemical engineering includes catalysts, reactor design, thermodynamics, and system and process design. Then with fast developing biology, biochemical engineering forms an important part. And thanks to recent improvements in high-tech instruments, materials engineering becomes another hot topic.
After some discoveries in the lab, there is still a long way to go before making actual contributions to human society. When you put tons of raw materials into a huge reactor, things do not react the same way they do in the lab with a tiny flask. But thanks to this research, with more knowledge we can fill the gap between lab experiments and industrial production. Thermodynamics tells us how much product we can get; catalyst and transport tell us how long it takes to get a certain amount of product; then reactor and system design ensure that we achieve the product efficiently and safely.
However, herein lies the problem.
Seventy-five percent of top universities have departments of chemical engineering, but sadly only 20 percent of the professors are doing research in conventional chemical engineering.
Another concern is the age structure of faculty. Age doesn’t mean everything, but it does indicate something. People doing conventional chemical engineering are generally older than average, which is over 60 years of age. Ideally we should have more people in the range between 40 and 60 years of age when they are experienced and vigorous both in teaching and research, which is true for biochemical and materials engineering research. Older researchers are the most experienced and have the broadest vision in their field, and they can point out the current problems. However, they may not have the time and energy to guide their students to make breakthroughs in this field. If we recall that the total number of faculty in conventional chemical engineering, the problem may be even more serious.
Luckily we have a lot of well-established methods to solve problems in the chemical industry. But first you need to learn these methods because many of them are empirical. And for each problem you have many choices. It’s hard to know which one is best for the problems you are dealing with. People can learn that by trying each method in practice but one must take into consideration the terrible accidents each year in the chemical industry and you will agree that industry is not a good place for practice. An individual should know most of the methods before entering a factory. However, more than 40 percent of the teachers for core courses in chemical engineering are not focusing on the research topics related to the courses they are teaching. That means they may not be able to teach the students what is the best and what one may need in industry. That may not seem to be important for the students who are going to be researchers in other fields in graduate school but it’s crucial for those students who want to join industry after a bachelor’s degree especially since more and more industry employers are looking for skilled workers and engineers.
One possible reason for slow change may be the cost to change to new technologies in industry. Chemical engineering has been developing steadily over the last century and has established standard methods. It is reasonable that scientists don’t want to risk trying new techniques with the potential loss of millions of dollars per day and unclear profit. This also discourages people from doing research concerning real problems in industry. On the other hand, in academia, researchers are more willing to prepare for the future and try new methods. Biofuels, genetic therapy, and alternative materials research, for example, seem to be more attractive. The low impact factors of conventional chemical engineering journals indicate there are fewer articles to be cited or fewer articles that cite others’ work, either way, or maybe both.