Three is the magic number for chemical engineering education (Day 363)

Three is the magic number for chemical engineering education (Day 363)

25th May 2015

Today is Day 363 and the end of my time in the blogosphere is getting closer. I have just three days left to shine a light on chemical engineering.

And since three is the magic number, according to the music of Schoolhouse Rock and De La Soul, I think it's fitting to focus on three topics that underpin an excellent chemical engineering education. A sound knowledge of these topics, coupled with an ability to apply them in a practical setting, is a key part of the learning outcomes from an IChemE accredited degree course of which there are over 200 on offer in 60 university departments in 13 countries.

It's fair to say that without a fundamental grounding in core chemical engineering principles, none of the achievements that I have described over the last twelve months would have been possible. And whilst this is not an exhaustive list, I've attempted to distil the richness of our profession into just three topics - topics that no chemical engineer can live without.

I'd be interested to hear if you agree with my three choices and, because there is no right or wrong answer in a debate like this, readers should feel free to disagree - and comment on the blog.

Without further ado, here are my top three topics:

1. Thermodynamics

Thermodynamics is the branch of physics concerned with heat and temperature and their relation to energy and work. It defines macroscopic variables, such as internal energy, entropy and pressure, that partly describe a body of matter or radiation.

It's a rite of passage for first year chemical engineering undergraduates to get to grips with the laws of thermodynamics - and seemingly endless hours spent looking at steam tables!

Thermodynamics is an essential part of chemical engineering.  We need to understand how energy is transferred within a system and to its surroundings. Without it, we wouldn't be able to analyse or design a chemical process. One the first stages of designing a process from concept phase is performing a material and energy balance. It's a tough topic, but we'd be sunk without it.

2. Transport phenomena

Photo Credit | Wiley & Sons

The study of transport phenomena concerns the exchange of mass, energy and momentum between observed and studied systems.

The topic incorporates mass transfer, heat (and energy) transfer, fluid mechanics (momentum transfer), catalysis science and applied mathematics. In some chemical engineering circles  transport phenomena is defined as a paradigm that transformed the understanding of our profession.

The chemical engineering 'bible' for this subject, aptly titled 'Transport phenomena' was written by Robert B. Bird, Warren E. Stewart and Edwin N. Lightfoot in 1960. Bird described his inspiration for this landmark book as the "Realisation that most (chemical) engineers were not taught the basic mathematical formulation underlying heat, mass, and momentum transfer so important to industrial processes and that this omission made it difficult for engineers to tackle new problems."

Once again, transport phenomena is a tough subject, but just imagine the awe you can inspire in others when you explain, with just a few partial differential equations employing less than eight Greek letters, why water comes out of a tap in drops when the flow is slow, and in a stream when the flow is faster!

3. Systems engineering

The systems approach is synonymous with our profession.  So much so, that it is one of the skills that sets chemical engineers apart. Chemical engineers can integrate different components of a problem in order to find the best solution - we evaluate the problem as a whole then de-construct it into manageable components.

Systems engineering allows us to work from the smallest scale, the unit operation, right up to the large scale of a process plant. Some chemical engineers even apply the systems approach to entire ecosystems. By approaching problems in this way, chemical engineers are well placed to address the grand challenges of the 21st century such as water, energy, food, climate change and raw material scarcity. The systems thinking approach lies behind much of the great chemical engineering that has featured in this blog.

So there you have it, thermodynamics, transport phenomena and systems engineering. Each one essential to the chemical engineer's toolbox. If you want to get involved in the on-going debate about the relevance and importance of these topics, and the way that they are taught and applied in the 21st Century, IChemE's Education Special Interest Group is a pretty good place to start.

Agree or disagree?

Comment below and let's get a debate going.