February 2008

Good ingredients in chemical engineering

By Ellen Fussell Policastro

Flexibility, problem-solving, and juggling are three important skills to master if you are a chemical engineer. As an instrumentation consultant in the refining organization at ConocoPhillips in Houston, John Campbell wears about three or four different hats. In fact, some would consider him the refining safety instrumented systems expert.

Campbell also works on process reliability modeling, which means building a model of the mechanical equipment part of the process designed to determine what the likely uptime will be. "That's unusual because that's typically something done by a mechanical engineer," he said. "But I find being a chemical engineer I have a better understanding of the process, how it flows, and what you can and can't do."

Campbell got into chemical engineering first because he enjoyed chemistry in high school, but he also wanted something more marketable than a straight chemistry degree. Chemical engineering was more marketable because "engineering rather than pure science leads you to more options-where you can work and what you can do, unless you want to do research," he said. "If you get a straight chemistry degree, you're stuck inside a refinery lab doing analysis rather than working in a refinery proper."

The most obvious skill set that makes an engineer marketable, as far as Campbell is concerned, is a broader exposure during school to various disciplines like mechanics, mechanical drafting, thermal dynamics, chemistry, physics, and electrical engineering basics. "Of course that was a few years ago, and the organization of the degree program has changed somewhat, but the basic course content is the same."

But in an October 2006 InTech article, "Should the teaching of process control be changed?" Joseph Alford of Eli Lilly said students trained in chemical engineering are typically not well prepared to support process control in industrial chemical plants, especially regarding batch processes. "It seems most process control courses rely heavily on steady-state continuous kinds of processes (e.g., petrochemicals) that dominated the chemical industry 30 to 60 years ago, but are not a good fit for the extensive use of non-steady state, multi-step batch processes, and also discrete manufacturing processes, in common use today," he said.

Outside-box thinking

Yet Campbell believes if you try new things and do not limit yourself, you can transcend anomalies associated with some common perceptions. "If you're not open to new things that may be outside the ordinary, then you'll always be doing the same thing you're currently doing," he said. In fact, being flexible led Campbell to his career in mechanical reliability modeling. "I was part of a project team working on a demonstration unit, working on instrumentation and controls," he said. "They wanted to do a mechanical reliability model, and the one person they had wasn't available to build it. I volunteered, and it's turned into a part-time career."

Another asset Campbell brings to the table as a chemical engineer is the ability to juggle and balance multiple projects. "It takes major-league negotiation skills. I got that from experience. When I went through school there was not that much emphasis on working in teams as there is today," he said. 

His biggest reward as a chemical engineer is being recognized for his problem-solving abilities. "We have a large, old gas processing facility in England where decision-makers needed help to determine the path forward in upgrades, maintenance, or shutting down parts," he said. That included doing a mechanical reliability model. "When that question came up, my name popped to the top, rather than that of an outside consultant."


Ellen Fussell Policastro is the associate editor of InTech.  Her e-mail is efussellpolicastro@isa.org.


Salaries climbing in chemicals

The demand in the past few years for chemical engineers at major chemical and pharmaceutical companies is expected to continue, said the American Chemical Society (www.acs.org). Opportunities will expand, especially in the biotechnology industry. Research jobs will also bloom as industry begins implementing new energy sources to substitute diminishing supplies of petroleum and natural gas.

Chemical engineers can still find lucrative careers in nuclear energy, materials science, food production, the development of new sources of energy, and medicine, ACS said. The curriculum of study for chemical engineering mimics the chemistry curriculum, but includes courses in thermodynamics, fluid dynamics, process design, and control and electronics, the ACS site said. In 2007, chemical engineers earned an average salary of $103,730, according to a salary survey commissioned by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) at www.aiche.org and released in August. 

Chemical engineers in corporate and general management earn the highest median salary ($150,000), followed by those in plant management and project management ($114,000 and $110,000). Others in the $100,000-and-above ranges include engineering/ procurement/construction, technical service, process safety, health and loss prevention, and sales and marketing.