Chemical engineers apply the principles of chemistry, biology, physics, and mathematics to solve problems that involve the production or use of chemicals, fuel, drugs, food, and many other products. They design processes and equipment for large-scale manufacturing, plan and test methods of manufacturing products and treating byproducts, and supervise production.
Chemical engineers typically do the following:
- Conduct research to develop new and improved manufacturing processes
- Develop safety procedures for those working with potentially dangerous chemicals
- Develop processes to separate components of liquids and gases or to generate electrical currents using controlled chemical processes
- Design and plan the layout of equipment
- Do tests and monitor performance of processes throughout production
- Troubleshoot problems with manufacturing processes
- Evaluate equipment and processes to ensure compliance with safety and environmental regulations
- Estimate production costs for management
Some chemical engineers specialize in a particular process, such as oxidation (a reaction of oxygen with chemicals to make other chemicals) or polymerization (making plastics and resins). Others specialize in a particular field, such as nanomaterials (making extremely small substances), biological engineering, or in developing specific products.
Chemical engineers also work in producing energy, electronics, food, clothing, and paper. They work in research in life sciences, biotechnology, and business services.
Chemical engineers must be aware of all aspects in the manufacturing of chemicals, drugs, or other products. They must also understand how the manufacturing process affects the environment and the safety of workers and consumers.
Chemical engineers held about 33,300 jobs in 2012.
Chemical engineers work mostly in offices or laboratories. They may spend time at industrial plants, refineries, and other locations, where they monitor or direct operations or solve onsite problems. Chemical engineers must be able to work with professionals who design other systems and with the technicians and mechanics who put the designs into practice.
Some engineers travel extensively to plants or worksites both domestically and abroad.
The industries that employed the most chemical engineers in 2012 were as follows:
|Architectural, engineering, and related services||17%|
|Basic chemical manufacturing||13|
|Scientific research and development services||10|
|Resin, synthetic rubber, and artificial synthetic fibers and filaments manufacturing||6|
|Petroleum and coal products manufacturing||6|
Nearly all chemical engineers work full time.
Chemical engineers must have a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. Employers also value practical experience, so cooperative engineering programs, in which students earn college credit for structured job experience, are valuable as well.
Chemical engineers must have a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. Programs usually take 4 years to complete and include classroom, laboratory, and field studies. High school students interested in studying chemical engineering will benefit from taking science courses, such as chemistry, physics, and biology. They also should take math courses, including algebra, trigonometry, and calculus.
At some universities, a student can opt to enroll in a 5-year program that leads to both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. A graduate degree, which may include a degree up to the Ph.D. level, allows an engineer to work in research and development or as a postsecondary teacher.
Some colleges and universities offer cooperative programs where students gain practical experience while completing their education. Cooperative programs combine classroom study with practical work, permitting students to gain valuable experience and to finance part of their education.
Engineering programs should be accredited by ABET. ABET-accredited programs in chemical engineering include courses in chemistry, physics, and biology. These programs also include applying the sciences to the design, analysis, and control of chemical, physical, and biological processes.
Analytical skills. Chemical engineers must be able to figure out why a particular design does not work as planned. They must be able to ask the right questions and then find answers that work.
Creativity. Chemical engineers must be able to explore new ways of applying engineering principles. They work to invent new materials, advanced manufacturing techniques, and new applications in chemical and biomedical engineering.
Ingenuity. Chemical engineers learn the broad concepts of chemical engineering, but their work requires them to apply those concepts to specific production problems.
Interpersonal skills. Chemical engineers must develop good working relationships with people in production because their role is to put scientific principles into practice in manufacturing industries.
Math skills. Chemical engineers use the principals of calculus and other advanced topics in mathematics for analysis, design, and troubleshooting in their work.
Problem-solving skills. In designing equipment and processes for manufacturing, these engineers strive to solve several problems at once, including such issues as workers’ safety and problems related to manufacturing and environmental protection. They must also be able to anticipate and identify problems to prevent losses for their employers, safeguard workers’ health, and prevent environmental damage.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Licensure for chemical engineers is not as common as it is for other engineering occupations, but it is encouraged for professional advancement. Chemical engineers who become licensed carry the designation of professional engineers (PEs). Licensure generally requires the following:
- A degree from an engineering program accredited by ABET
- A passing score on the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam
- Relevant work experience
- A passing score on the Professional Engineering (PE) exam
The initial Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam can be taken right after graduation. Engineers who pass this exam commonly are called engineers in training (EITs) or engineer interns (EIs). After they get work experience, EITs can take the second exam, called the Principles and Practice of Engineering exam.
Several states require engineers to take continuing education to keep their license. Most states recognize licensure from other states, if the licensing state’s requirements meet or exceed their own licensure requirements.
Entry-level engineers usually work under the supervision of experienced engineers. In large companies, new engineers may also receive formal training in classrooms or seminars. As beginning engineers gain knowledge and experience, they move to more difficult projects with greater independence to develop designs, solve problems, and make decisions.
Eventually, chemical engineers may advance to supervise a team of engineers and technicians. Some may become architectural and engineering managers. However, preparing for management positions usually requires working under the guidance of a more experienced chemical engineer.
An engineering background enables chemical engineers to discuss a product's technical aspects and assist in product planning and use. For more information, see the profile on sales engineers.
The median annual wage for chemical engineers was $94,350 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $58,830, and the top 10 percent earned more than $154,840.
In May 2012, the median annual wages for chemical engineers in the top five industries employing these engineers were as follows:
|Petroleum and coal products manufacturing||$105,310|
|Basic chemical manufacturing||99,510|
|Scientific research and development services||97,880|
|Resin, synthetic rubber, and artificial synthetic fibers
and filaments manufacturing
|Architectural, engineering, and related services||93,390|
A June 2013 salary survey by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers of their members reported that graduates of bachelor’s degree programs in 2011 had a median yearly salary of $67,800. The survey also noted that many chemical engineers receive benefits such as stock options or profit-sharing awards.
Nearly all chemical engineers work full time.
Employment of chemical engineers is projected to grow 4 percent from 2012 to 2022, slower than the average for all occupations. Demand for chemical engineers’ services depends largely on demand for the products of various manufacturing industries. Employment growth will be sustained by the ability of these engineers to stay on the forefront of new, emerging technologies.
Many chemical engineers work in industries that have output sought by many manufacturing firms. For instance, they work for firms that manufacture plastic resins, used to increase fuel efficiency in automobiles. Increased availability of domestically produced natural gas should increase manufacturing potential in the industries employing these engineers.
In addition, chemical engineering is also migrating into new fields, such as nanotechnology, alternative energies, and biotechnology, which will help to sustain demand for engineering services in many manufacturing industries.
However, overall growth of employment will be tempered by a decline in employment in manufacturing sectors, including chemical manufacturing.
Chemical engineers should have favorable job prospects as many workers in the occupation reach retirement age from 2012 to 2022.
For more information on becoming a chemical engineer, visit
For information about general engineering education and career resources, visit
For more information about licensure as a professional engineer, visit
For information about accredited engineering programs, visit