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What Is Chemical Engineering?

chemical vials

Chemical engineers at UW design the molecules, materials, and devices that enable us to better treat disease, produce clean energy, and live more sustainably. Our students work with internationally-recognized faculty and receive specialized training in molecular engineering, nanotechnology, data science, and other critical skills for today’s workforce. With an emphasis on project-based learning, entrepreneurship, and a culture of inclusion, we prepare students for leadership in diverse careers.

The skills of chemical engineers are well-suited to creating impactful solutions to a range of complex problems. In UW ChemE, researchers work at the nano and molecular level to develop advanced materials; they collaborate with medical researchers in the design of better therapeutics, medical devices, and diagnostics; and their pioneering data science work is driving innovation in semiconductors, solar cells, materials characterization, and chemical and biological discovery.

What is Chemical Engineering?

Chemical engineering involves a deep understanding of systems and processes that transform low value materials into products that impact lives every day. The food in your fridge, paper you write on, batteries and semiconductor chips that run our technology, pharmaceuticals and advanced medical technology: these have all been touched by chemical engineers. Decades ago, the main industries for chemical engineers were chemicals, oil & gas, and consumer packaged goods. But today, chemical engineers are valuable contributors to many different sectors of the economy. Their versatility places them at the forefront of solving some of the most pressing problems facing our world, from health to energy and the environment, and beyond. 

Chemical engineers are concerned with scale and affordability. A medication isn’t useful if it can’t be manufactured at scale, for a price that is affordable to the people who need it, and delivered efficiently to the places it’s needed. Computers that once filled entire  rooms are now a thousand times more powerful and have shrunk to hand-held size, thanks to the introduction of manufacturing methods perfected by ChemEs. For big problems, like non-recyclable materials filling landfills or global warming, chemical engineers will be used to develop solutions at a scale that matters.

Chemical engineers are systems-oriented. They’re trained to look at the relationship between a single component of a process and the entire process across a wide range of application areas. Chemical engineers quantify the role of a single brain cell within the context of its environment, its relationship to other cells, and the function of the brain. These insights are critical to developing a therapeutic that selectively alters that cell function for better outcomes. When considering the issue of clean water, chemical engineers can look at water samples in lakes, treatment centers, and our homes both individually and as a part of the whole system to identify where the most impactful, affordable changes can be made. A chemical engineer helped Amazon reduce waste from packaging, which impacted billions of products shipped all over the world.

Chemical engineers understand the basic building blocks of chemical processes and use that knowledge to optimize, scale, and transform processes in innovative ways — much like a Lego aficionado can turn simple blocks into a masterpiece. The same basic units can be combined in infinite ways. For example, the fermenters like the ones in ChemE student labs are used by industry to make drugs, fine chemicals, low carbon fuels, and some of our favorite beverages. 

Chemical engineers are the only engineers trained in reactor design. While this may conjure an image of  a nuclear power plant, a reactor is something that transforms low value raw materials, like natural gas, into high value products, like the polymers and fibers that make a Boeing 787 the lightest and most fuel efficient aircraft in its class. Reactor design is central to mass manufacturing of nearly all consumer products; for understanding the way drugs make their way through our body (each organ is effectively a different kind of reactor); for more efficient and long lasting batteries (which are reactors that use chemicals to produce electricity) and for computer chip manufacturing, which requires the movement of a silicon wafer through a series of reactors, building up atom-by-atom one of the most important nanotechnology products in our lives today.