What is a Chemical Engineer?

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Chemical engineering deals with the application of chemistry and other natural sciences to manufacturing processes. It focuses on using the safest and most efficient ways to make products. Chemical engineering may be applied to any product that involves chemicals or chemical reactions, including food, medicine, and cosmetics.

A chemical engineer is an engineer who focuses on making industrial and consumer products through chemical methods. Chemical engineers help plan the composition of the product itself, as well as the overall manufacturing processes and industrial equipment.

What Does a Chemical Engineer Do?

Chemical engineers plan the manufacture of products through chemical techniques. They decide how to make the process safe, which reaction pathway to use, how to purify the product, how to reduce, treat, and dispose of any byproducts, what to do with unreacted raw materials, and how to make the process cost and energy-efficient. They also devise new and improved chemical manufacturing processes.

Some design and evaluate equipment and plan its layout to optimize processes and comply with regulations. They determine the order or manufacturing steps, and perform tests to monitor conditions throughout the process. They may also design measuring and monitoring equipment for chemical plants. Some chemical engineers specialize in certain processes or industries, such as nanotechnology or making plastics. They often work with other types of engineers, such as mechanical engineers, to create and optimize industrial systems.

Chemical engineers are helping address the energy crisis by creating fuel and electricity. Even when working on more mundane consumer products they devise manufacturing processes that require less energy. They also help make them as environmentally safe as possible, and eliminate as much waste as they can. Even then, they decide on the safest way to treat and dispose of waste from byproducts.

Where Does a Chemical Engineer Work?

Chemical engineers work mostly in offices or labs. They may spend time on-site overseeing operations at manufacturing facilities. Some may travel widely to reach work sites, including overseas.

As of 2012, the majority of chemical engineers (17%) worked in architectural, engineering, and related services. Another 13% worked in basic chemical manufacturing. 10% were employed in scientific research and development services. 6% worked in resin, synthetic rubber, and artificial synthetic fibers and filaments manufacturing, and another 6% worked in petroleum and coal products manufacturing.

What Is the Average Chemical Engineer Salary?

The average annual salary for chemical engineers was $94,350 in May 2012. Engineers involved in manufacturing petroleum and coal products earned the highest salaries ($105,310). Those employed in basic chemical manufacturing made an average of $99,510. Those providing scientific research and development services made $97,880. Chemical engineers working in resin, synthetic rubber, and artificial synthetic fibers and filaments manufacturing made $94,810, and those providing architectural, engineering, and related services made $93,390. According to the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, many chemical engineers also receive stock options or profit-sharing awards.

StateTotal EmploymentBottom 25%Median SalaryTop 75%
District of Columbia120$99,920$114,810$129,210
New Jersey1,640$77,600$100,160$129,050
New Mexico100$84,670$98,040$125,470
New York1,310$66,430$89,280$112,270
North Carolina660$65,580$84,640$109,470
North Dakota30---
Puerto Rico150$35,760$44,740$76,620
South Carolina650$64,970$76,710$94,370
West Virginia120$73,420$89,980$107,670

Table data taken from BLS (http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes172041.htm)

What Is the Job Demand for Chemical Engineers?

The field is projected to grow 4 percent from 2012 to 2022, slower than the average for all occupations. Openings for chemical engineers will depend on demand for manufactured products. Many new opportunities will be in emerging technologies and fields like nanotechnology, alternative energies, and biotechnology. However, growth will be slow overall due to a sluggish manufacturing sector.

What Chemical Engineer Careers Are Available?

Chemical engineers may eventually advance to supervisory positions. Some become architectural and engineering managers. Since their technical background allows them to explain products and set them up for clients, some also become sales engineers. Their problem-solving skills make them valuable across other industries as well, including commerce and finance.

How Do I Get a Chemical Engineering Degree?

Chemical engineering positions require a minimum of a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from an ABET-accredited program. These programs usually include classroom, laboratory, and field studies. Some schools offer 5-year programs that lead to both a B.S. and M.S. Students interested in this field can prepare by taking science and math courses, including physics, biology, chemistry and trigonometry. Internships and cooperative programs are excellent ways to get experience while in college, which is valued highly by prospective employers.

Master's and doctoral degrees are generally required for positions in research and development; doctoral degrees are required for faculty positions at colleges and universities.

Related Degree Options for Chemical Engineering

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Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Since chemical engineers don't usually offer their services directly to the public, licensure is optional. However, it's still a good idea for advancement. Licensed engineers will be credentialed as professional engineers (PEs). Licensure generally requires:

  • A degree from an ABET-accredited engineering program
  • A passing score on the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam
  • Relevant work experience, typically at least 4 years
  • A passing score on the Professional Engineering (PE) exam

College graduates may take the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam immediately. Engineers who pass this exam are called engineers in training (EITs) or engineer interns (EIs). After gaining four years of work experience, EITs and EIs can go on to take the Principles and Practice of Engineering exam to qualify for licensure.

Several states require engineers to participate in professional development activities in order to keep their licenses. Most states recognize licensure from other states, as long as that state's requirements meet or exceed their own licensure requirements.

What Kind of Societies and Professional Organizations Do Chemical Engineers Have?

  • The American Institute of Chemical Engineers is a global organization with over 45,000 members. It offers professional development opportunities, organizes an annual meeting and student regional conferences, hosts resources related to chemical engineering practice, and organizes an Institute for Sustainability, an Environmental Division, and a Center for Energy Initiatives.
  • The National Society of Professional Engineers is the authority on licensure, ethics, and practice in the engineering profession. It hosts a job board, provides salary information, offers a mentoring program, and provides resume writing services. It also organizes six interest groups for construction, government, higher education, industry, private practice, and young engineers.