Chemical and bioengineers work at the interface between molecular sciences (chemistry, biology and medicine) and large-scale engineering.The new bioengineering discipline of synthetic biology has exciting potential for the design of entirely novel biological chemicals and systems that could prove useful in applications ranging from fuels to medicines to environmental clean-up and more.
Chemical engineering began around 1823 with the first high-volume industrial process in England to produce soda ash for making glass and soap. By the 1850s synthetic dyes for textiles were being made from coal. Now chemical engineers produce a wide range of products from petrol (gasoline) to plastics to composite materials to synthetic fabrics to computer chips.
Chemical engineers are responsible for water quality. They design and supervise the detailed processes of removing large objects (like logs of wood or dead animals) and making controlled use of biological (e.g. microbes that decompose organic matter) and chemical processes to clean the water and make it potable.
A familar chemical plastic material is polythene. Reginald Gibson and Eric Fawcett were working for Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) in 1933 when they first created polythene. Gibson and Fawcett were studying the effect of high pressure on chemical reactions. They decided to react ethylene with benzaldehyde at 170 degrees Celsius and 2,000 atmospheres. They found a waxy substance which turned out to be polyethylene – now called polythene. Unfortunately their equipment was crude and considered unsafe so experiments were suspended. In 1935 Michael Perrin and colleagues in the same laboratory had another go and produced sufficient quantities to warrant taking a patent in 1936. By 1937 they were producing kilograms quantities and the first commercial plants started production in 1939. Polythene could be made into film, sheet and tubing. By the 1970s it was the first plastic to reach a million tons of sales and is now ubiquitous in packaging and containers. One of the early and important uses of polythene was as an excellent insulator in RADAR or RAdio Detection And Ranging equipment.