More often than not, I am asked what is the future of chemical engineering, now that the world is going green? A more appropriate question should be, what is the future of the fossil fuel energy sector, now that the world is going green? Chemical engineering is so much more than petrochemicals, however, the vast majority of the population only associate chemical engineering with oil and gas.
While this is understandable, as “chemical” is in the name, it can sometimes lead to negative feelings towards chemical engineers, especially from environmental activists. So here we will look at the extensive range of different industries and discuss what we expect their future will be in terms of job prospects and growth.
What Chemical Engineers Can Do
A quicker question to ask is what can chemical engineers not do? As most of the things we enjoy on a daily basis have at some point gone through the hands of a chemical engineer. While not directly through, but undergone some process that was designed by a chemical engineer.
We know that chemical engineers are renowned for working within the oil and gas sector, but what other industries would you find them in? Well here is a list of just some of the industries that look specifically for chemical engineers, and some of them will surprise you!
- Food & drink
- Green energy production
- Plastics & materials
- Government research
- And more…
So you can see we are not limited to just oil and gas, we have such a diverse range of skills that regardless of the future of oil and gas, chemical engineers will continue to be a prospective career path.
Let’s take a look at some of these in more detail to get a better idea of what a chemical engineer can bring to the table.
The Energy Sector
We will start with the elephant in the room, and talk about the energy sector first, as chances are this is the reason you are reading this post.
As the world shifts from relying solely on fossil fuel-derived energy, the prospects of graduate chemical engineers entering the petrochemical industry seems counter-intuitive, however, this would be a misconception. The ambitious goal of going net-zero by 2050 is one that poses significant challenges, which you can read more about in our dedicated post about net-zero emissions. These challenges are hugely influential in determining the future of oil and gas.
The transition from oil and gas to green technology such as solar, wind, wave, biofuel, and so forth, will not happen overnight. This means we are going to be reliant on oil and gas for the next few decades to maintain our ever-growing energy demands. This highlights that the claims that chemical engineering is “dead” is absolute nonsense.
The other claim is for graduates not to enter the petrochemical industry as “you will be unemployed by your 30s”, this is nonsense as well. The major oil and gas giants; BP, Shell, Total, Esso, etc all know the shift in skills is coming, so appropriate training and retraining programs are being developed to help transition the current engineers into the renewable energy sector.
So despite what environmental activists will say, oil and gas is here to stay for some time, in order to supply us with the energy needs to power our cars, heat our homes, and carry out our daily life tasks.
The Pharmaceutical Sector
This industry has been reliant on chemical engineers for decades and will continue to thrive as the year’s progress. Over the past two years during the COVID-19 pandemic, the rush to find a vaccine has required the collective knowledge of scientists from around the world.
Despite their name, a chemical engineer is also regarded as a scientist, as this discipline was created for the sole purpose of combining science with engineering, which is why the skills and knowledge we have is so vast.
In my opinion the development of drugs to treat illness and prevent chronic conditions is mans greater achievement. Granted space exploration and advancements in technology are impressive, but our ability to understand and manipulate natural biological material to improve the life quality and span is on a completely other level.
Medicine will always be required in all four corners of the globe, and demand will increase as the year’s progress, with new treatments for conditions such as cancer, diabetes, arthritis etc. The way in which we manufacture them will need to be optimised and potentially redeveloped. This is where chemical engineers come into play.
While some chemical engineers focus on developing the drugs themselves, so look to optimising the process of manufacturing, as after all that is our “bread and butter”. So as the years progress the demand for chemical engineers within the pharmaceutical and nutraceutical industries will continue to grow!
The Nanotechnology Sector
This sector has a huge potential for chemical engineering contribution, as the different divisions within nanotechnology are vast. Now I am not going to delve into the details of each as it is not my area of expertise, however, what I do know is that the growing damnd for this type of research is rising fast.
The advancement of science and innovation in the case of highly sophisticated technology and processes can be attributed to nanotechnology. The applications of where this technology can go are almost endless. Chemical engineers have a working knowledge of physics, with a strong understanding of complex advanced mathematics, which we cover in our fully dedicated mathematics course.
The production processes for nanotechnology equipment is where chemical engineers come into play. Analysing the requirements of a given system with the parameters and targets, it’s up to the chemical engineer to design the most efficient and sustainable manufacturing process. Alternatively, chemical engineers can be at the forefront of research and development of the actual technology itself. However, it should be noted that your love of chemistry and physics will be tested as this area is often an abstract and theoretical approach to design, which can be counterintuitive for us as engineers.
With this industry growing by the day, it’s safe to say that the future prospects for chemical engineers within nanotechnology are very good indeed.
The Green Energy Sector
As public perception moves towards reducing fossil fuel consumption, alternative fuels like ethanol, biodiesel, and biogas are becoming more lucrative for chemical engineers and business development.
Most of these industries are already well-established but need expansion and improvement, as there are significant bottlenecks within productivity, cost, and yield. This is where chemical engineers come into play.
Bio-based fuel will be a major contributor to reducing the amount of petrol and diesel consumed in traditional combustion engines. The production of biofuels will look towards the bioethanol and microalgae cultivation technologies, as these appear to be the most sustainable and have the ability to produce large quantities of biofuel.
As more people change to electric cars, the energy requirements needed to change these high powered vehicles will increase drastically. So not only is the production volume a concern, but also the availability and quantity of elements needed to produce the batteries in the first place.
Take for example lithium. It was estimated that to convert every car in the UK from petrol and diesel to electric will require approximately 250,000 tonnes of lithium. This is currently 75% of the global production of lithium. So as you can see the limitations on element availability will prevent mass production of electric vehicles in its tracks. So the future for chemical engineers within this sector is incredibly bright!
The Accountancy Sector
Now this one is going to sound strange, but trust me this is one I never would have thought of, if not for speaking to a couple of business owners down in London.
Big companies that are looking to expand their enterprise of enter a new market, related to processes, optimisations, etc will require the help of accountants to verify if an investment is a good idea or not, in terms of ROI.
Now as chemical engineers we don’t look specifically at accounting, but what we do look at is the costing and development of plants and processes. This gives us a unique insight into the true cost of equipment, processes and how we can minimise the cost while maximising production.
These companies look towards chemical engineers to help them price plants and processes, to nalayse proposals brought by external contractors to ensure they arent being ripped off, as the company employees might not know a whole lot about the true cost within this industry. So the use of a chemical engineer to fully understand the cost and economics of the process can make them a highly useful asset within the accountancy sector.
In regards to the future, I would assume that the trend for demand will only grow, especially with new companies forming within the green energy sector. So this is one that you may find appealing.
So Whats The Verdict?
Looking at chemical engineering for what it truly is, and not for its role in just oil and gas, I can say for certain that the future for chemical engineering graduates is promising.
With such an array of different job opportunities, you will be hard pushed to not find something you like. The most important thing when looking at different jo opportunities is to follow what you are passionate about. Don’t chase a huge pay cheque for a job you don’t actually enjoy.
Find something you love doing and you will never work a day in your life. I know this from my love of teaching, regardless of what I teach I never wake up and think “I don’t want to work today”. My ability to teach is what gets me motivated and so I don’t feel as though I am working.
People who say chemical engineering is a dying industry are certainly not chemical engineers, nor do they have a clue what chemical engineers actually do, so I encourage you to ignore all those opinions and know that you will have one of the best degrees in the world, and you have the world at your fingertips!