Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Chemical Engineering

One major "theme" of my life is chemical engineering. I recently wrote about how my homework and exams have been killing my love of it, but like it or not, engineering is still a huge part of my life.  I realised however that not a lot of people actually know what chemical engineering is or what we do.  Well gather 'round my possum pals and join the jamboree, because I'm here to tell you all about it.
First off, we are not chemists.  It's actually kind of mean (and we joke that it's degrading) to call us that, so don't do it.
This is a chemist
and this is a chemical engineer
notice the hard hats and way cooler apparatus.
The main difference is best summarized like this:  chemists will spend millions in a lab to produce a few micrograms of a substance; a chemical engineer will take the substance from the chemist, find out how to make 3 tons a minute of it really cheaply, then sell it and become rich.

What I actually do is scale up.  Chemical engineers take a small, experimental process and make it big.  It's like the difference between baking cookies at home and how Keebler does it.  Chemists are you, and I'm Keebler.  I also make it possible for things to be produced safely, cleanly, and cheaply.  When I do my job right, your aspirin is purer, your energy cleaner, and your overall quality of life improves.  You can look at almost anything in your house (including the electricity and gas and water lines)  and thank a chemical engineer for it.  If it is heated or flows through a pipe I can tell you how it works.

So what does this involve and why do I whine about it so much?  It involves a lot actually.  ABET (the board that accredits college degrees) has the strictest policies for chemical engineers.  We have the most required classes of any major and none of them are a walk in the park.  I've been a chemical engineer for 2 years and have already done 2 classes in thermodynamics, a class in fluid mechanics, biochemistry, organic chemistry, physical chemistry, MATLAB coding, transport phenomena, polymer science, plus a few more that all MIT students have to take.  The result?  I don't have to go to grad school.  My undergraduate degree is considered a "professional" degree.  This allows me to register as a professional chemical engineer with the state and hold the same status as doctors and lawyers.  I can give expert testimony and be considered a valuable source of input in my field with only a BS.  Pretty sweet gig.

Why do I like it? I'm not sure anymore honestly.  I grew up with a chemical engineer.  My dad works in a nuclear plant and I grew up hearing stories of the cool projects he worked on fixing things around the plant.  He also inspired me with his ability to grow his own consulting company.  The freedom that comes with being self employed is something I really want from my life and I feel like being an engineer is a good path towards that.  Overall I do like my major.  Yes it's hard, yes I'm almost failing, but if I went back and told myself what I know now, I'd do it all again.
I like learning how fluids behave, how heat goes from one place to another and how to keep reactors from clogging when you run them for days or months on end.  It's one giant puzzle, chemical engineering is finding out how to make processes bigger, how to fix new problems, and of course how to make lots of money doing it.
Studying in places other than at my desk feels like a vacation.
Like I said before, I'm an engineer.  I always have been, I always will be.  I'm starting to be happier about it and look forward for what new challenges face me.

I love talking to other students!  What do you do?  How do you like it?  Let me know ;)

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