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ChemE in Air & Space

What do chemical engineers working in air and space do?

Chemical engineers use their knowledge of physics, math, chemistry, materials & energy balances, thermodynamics, kinetics, and transport phenomena to transform raw materials into useful products. Their roles typically entail designing new processes, improving existing ones, reducing manufacturing costs and developing new products.

Innovations made by chemical engineers cut across the air and space sector. Chemical engineers are well-prepared to calculate the loss of material on re-entry vehicles, the propulsion or thrust of rocket engines, and the jet fuel sprays in a combustion engine. They use their understanding of phase transfer and the equations of state for pure chemicals and mixtures to improve and develop fuel systems. Additionally, the chemical engineering approach to development, and manufacture of advanced materials is key throughout air & space design. 

Why study chemical engineering if I'm interested in Air & Space? 

Chemical engineering covers all of the basics for Air & Space in depth within the curriculum, particularly with a full year of thermodynamics, individual mass, energy and heat transfer courses, as well rigorous coursework on how to calculate non-trivial phase transfer and mixtures of chemicals. These cover the historical perspectives of air and space, but chemical engineering is also tremendously useful in advanced space technologies-whether it be nanofabrication of materials for satellites, electrospray thruster systems (ionic liquid fuels), or membrane systems for purification of water/air in off-earth life systems, a critical feature in the ISS and other space environments.

Chemical engineering not only teaches these truly physical fundamentals, but focuses on how to develop them at small bench/lab scales and then scale them to larger processes, unlike any other engineering field. Chemical Engineering also provides many of the fundamental skills required for the complex computational programming/numerical simulations that is a cornerstone in the air & space industry with good introduction to software such as MATLAB, Simulinks, and ASPEN.

What problems are chemical engineers trying to solve in air and space?

Chemical engineers design, build and analyze processes that range in size and time. Some problems ChemE's work on include:

  • How do we transform low value materials into high value products?
  • How do we make this product in a scalable manner without a negative impact on the environment?
  • Can we optimize this process to be more economical, environmentally friendly, and safe?
  • How can we creatively utilize the ever-present heat transfer problems within narrow weight/cost restrictions? 
  • How do we extract more energy/efficiency out of thermodynamic cycles with less environmental cost/impact?

Customize ChemE to YOUR interests

ChemE is a cohort-based program, which means you never have to worry about when to take core classes or whether there will be space when you need it. You'll be able to focus on developing relationships with your classmates, faculty members, and advisers, as well as customizing your experience to your interests. While ChemE is a broad degree, we provide guidance to help students identify and pursue their interests while developing the strong fundamental perspective that all ChemEs bring. We encourage students to take ownership over their education to make the most of their time in chemical engineering. 

All ChemE students take at least 16 credits of engineering electives. Some students choose a broad array of electives and others choose to focus most of their electives in a specific area of their interest, called an optional focus area. Here are some examples of engineering electives, areas of knowledge, and focus areas that relate to Air & Space.

  • AA 210 (4 cr) Engineering Statics
  • CEE 220 Mechanics of Materials (4)
  • M E 230 Kinematics and Dynamics (4)
  • A A 310 Orbital and Space Flight Mechanics (4)
  • A A 311 Atmospheric Flight Mechanics (4)

Many students with an interest in Air & Space pursue optional focus areas in Energy Systems or Polymers, Composites, Colloids, and Interfaces

See all Pre-Approved Electives

All ChemE students take at least 24 credits of Areas of Impact, including at least 3 credits of DIV, 10 credits of VLPA, and 10 credits of I&S. We encourage students to consider using these credits as another way to deepen knowledge and gain a breadth of perspective on the areas of interest to them. Here are some examples of Areas of Knowledge courses that relate to Air & Space

  • ESS 102: Space and Space Travel (I&S)
  • HSTCMP 217: The Space Age (I&S)
  • ATM S 212: Air Pollution: From Urban Smog to the Ozone Hole
  • GEOG 435: Industrialization and Urbanization in China (I&S);
  • SOC 466: Economic Sociology (I&S)
  • GEOG 208: Geography of the World Economy: Regional Fortunes and the Rise of Global Markets

Common opportunities that ChemE students participate in include: 

Over 70% of BS ChemE students participate in undergraduate research while earning their degrees. Students can do undergraduate research in any engineering lab and count up to 9 credits toward engineering electives for degree requirements. Most research opportunities are not posted on the website. The best way to get involved is to read about the faculty on our research pages and email the professor you're most interested in researching with to see if they have space in their lab. ChemE faculty are on the cutting edge of research in the following areas:

  • Colloidal, polymeric and nanomaterials
  • Surface engineering
  • Directed assembly
  • Nanostructured materials
  • Large scale energy storage and utilization
  • Energy Systems Integration
  • Materials for photonic and electronic energy conversion
  • Energy conversion processes
  • Sensing technologies

Learn more

All ChemE students take a senior design course or a capstone course.

Standard Option

The standard capstone option is taking CHEM E 486: Process Design II. Students work in teams to design complex systems with consideration to economic and other constraints.

Industry Capstone Program

The Industry Capstone Program brings together UW students and companies to tackle real-world, multidisciplinary engineering problems. Sponsors bring in projects from their companies and provide support to teams of creative, talented engineering students who will design and build innovative solutions.Examples:

  • Characterization and Application of Recycled Carbon Fiber (Boeing - 2022)
  • Metal AM Finishing Fluid Flow Modeling (Boeing - 2022)
  • Thermoplastic Additive Manufacturing Finishing Process (Boeing - 2022)
  • Boeing: Chemical Bath Life Forecast (2019)

Learn more

Entrepreneurial Design Sequence

This is a three-quarter design sequence in which small teams of ChemE students research, design, and develop a business plan for a new product. Teams participate in the NW Business Plan Competition. Students receive credit for both the capstone and engineering electives.  (CHEM E 499, CHEM E 497)


Nano and Molecular Engineering Option

The NME option introduces students to nanoscale principles in molecular engineering, provides hands-on experience and stresses the interdisciplinary of this field. Students who complete the option have it noted on their transcript after graduation.

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Optional Focus Areas

Students who wish to deepen their knowledge in a specific subject may pursue an optional focus area, combining engineering electives, undergraduate research, study abroad, internship, and capstone experience to create an individualized learning experience that is in-depth in a specific area. Students who complete a focus area will receive a certificate at graduation.

Many students with an interest in Air & Space pursue optional focus areas in Energy Systems or Polymers, Composites, Colloids, and Interfaces.

Learn more

Where do ChemE alumni go to work in the air and space industry?

ChemE alumni work on many aspects of the manufacturing, materials and design that go into air and space travel. They solve problems around fuel efficiency, power and energy systems, and testing and manufacturing processes.

Common employers:
  • Boeing
  • NASA
  • Woodward, Inc.
  • PCC Prcision Cast Parts
  • Crane Aerospace
  • Honeywell Aerospace
  • The Jet Propulsion Lab
  • Valence Surface Technologies
  • Aerojet Rocketdyne
  • GE Aviation
  • Air Force Research Lab
Common titles in industry:
  • process engineer
  • project engineer
  • test engineer
  • manufacturing engineer
  • quality engineer
  • procurement engineer
  • design Engineer
  • systems engineer
  • propulsion engineer

Related News

Mon, 03/22/2021 | Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium

ChemE student takes on rocketry challenge

Chyson Acoba (ChemE '21) is the team lead and airframe & simulations lead for UW's entry in the First Nations Launch high-power rocket competition. The multidisciplinary team is part of the campus chapter of the American Indian Science & Engineering Society (AISES).