Ten differences between chemistry and chemical engineering (Day 66)

Ten differences between chemistry and chemical engineering (Day 66)

1st August 2014

Both fields are becoming increasingly important and deserve greater public recognition, but they are distinct.

Although I now work as a chemical engineer I originally studied chemistry, and so feel I should be well placed to highlight the key differences and dispel common misconceptions.

However, this list is in no way definitive and there are huge overlaps in the work of chemists and chemical engineers.

Here are ten differences between chemists and chemical engineers:

1. Recognition

The most apparent difference between chemists and chemical engineers to me is recognition. The public at large understand what a chemist does (because they studied chemistry in school), but there is a lack of recognition of what chemical engineering is.

Perhaps the highest form of recognition for both chemists and chemical engineers would be winning a Nobel Prize. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to 166 laureates since 1901 but I can only think of six of these winners who can be classified as chemical engineers; Koichi Tanaka, Jon B. Fenn, Kurt Wuthrich, Linus Carl Pauling, William Francis Giauque and Robert H. Grubbs.

As a group we chemical engineers need to get better at being envoys of our work.

2. History

George E Davis

Chemistry and the study of it is an old profession. Records exist of the ancient civilisations amassing practical knowledge of chemistry involved in metallurgy, pottery and dyeing. The study of chemistry as a science began in the 1600s, with chemists like Robert Boyle working towards the formulation of Boyle’s Law.

Chemical engineering emerged in its own right the late 1800s with George E Davis coining the term ‘chemical engineering’. Increasing understanding of the importance of chemical engineering after World War I led to IChemE being established in 1922.

3. Numbers

There are more chemists than there are chemical engineers, perhaps explaining why chemistry is more readily recognised. For example; there were ~29,800 applications to study chemistry in 2014 the UK, compared with ~19,900 to study chemical engineering.

However there is good news for chemical engineering. In the last year, chemical engineering in the UK has seen an increase of 18.6 per cent in the number of people applying to study it, compared with an increase of 9.4 per cent for chemistry. Obviously not all these students will go on to work as chemists or chemical engineers, but increasing numbers of students are a good sign for both fields.

4. Area of study

Chemistry investigates the background of the science encompassing aspects of; organic, inorganic, analytical, physical and bio-chemistry. Chemical engineering is more multidisciplinary in its approach and includes all of the previous topics, as well as aspects of physics and maths such as; heat transfer, fluid dynamics, equipment design etc. Here is a good YouTube video I found explaining this in a bit more detail:


5. Focus

Chemists tend to focus on developing novel materials and processes, analysing substances, measuring the physical properties of substances and testing theories.

Chemical engineering focuses on turning these new ideas and discoveries into useful products that are attainable. Most work falls into the design, manufacture and operation of plants and machinery; and the development of new materials or substances. Chemical engineers focus on making products for profit and on a scale that is accessible to the many.

6. Salary

Chemical engineers generally get paid more than chemists. The starting salary of a chemical engineer is £29,500 (AUD $69,000); the starting salary of an analytical chemist is £22,000. This does not change with career progression; senior analytical chemists could earn over £50,000 but chartered chemical engineers can earn £70,000+.

7. Careers

Both chemistry and chemical engineering are good subjects to study and the skills learnt can be applied to a variety of different jobs and roles. For chemists typical jobs within the field of chemistry include; analytical chemist, clinical biochemist, forensic scientist, pharmacologist, research scientist or toxicologist. The skills learnt in studying chemistry can also be applied to being an accountant, environmental consultant, patent law, teacher, or science writer. Chemists can even go on to become chemical engineers (like me!).

Chemical engineers can fill a wide range of roles in a variety of disciplines including; chemical engineer in the water industry, bioproduct engineer, food processing engineer or process engineer in the energy industry.

8. Place of work

Chemists tend to work in laboratories performing analysis or research and development, but can also be found in offices, classrooms and in the field. Chemical engineers tend to work at the plant end of research, but also work in laboratories, the field and the boardroom.

9. Scale

Chemists work with relatively small amounts of materials in glassware or on a laboratory bench; e.g. developing new drugs. Whereas chemical engineers work on industrial scale reactions with factory size equipment; e.g. scaling up drug production.

Chemists are more likely to develop novel products; and then chemical engineers are likely to take these products and make them more efficient so they are widely available and cheap.

10. Diversity

The bodies of chemistry and chemical engineering have both worked hard to promote diversity within the fields and both have seen success. This year 42 per cent of applicants to study chemistry were female, a good sign for gender equality.

In chemical engineering one in four students applying for chemical engineering is female, the highest amount in all the engineering professions. We chemical engineers need to do even more work to achieve a better gender balance.

It is important to remember that chemists and chemical engineers have to work together to achieve successful outcomes. This collaboration is the backbone of our work!

It would be great to hear from those of you who regularly work with chemists (or other scientists!) and how this affects your work.