Chemical Engineering | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Chemical Engineering

Chemical engineering is the technology of scaling up to commercial size chemical reactions which have been demonstrated in the laboratory.

Chemical Engineering

Chemical engineering is the technology of scaling up to commercial size chemical reactions which have been demonstrated in the laboratory. The sciences of CHEMISTRY, PHYSICS, BIOLOGY and MATHEMATICS underlie the ENGINEERING disciplines brought to bear on the design of safe and profitable chemical plants. An important objective of chemical engineering is to design the chemical reactors and physical processing equipment so that reactions proceed continuously, rather than occurring in batch operations. Because chemical engineers have become so adept at continuous processing, the CHEMICAL AND CHEMICAL PRODUCTS INDUSTRIES are skill- and capital-intensive, the ratio of employees to dollar revenue being low and the proportion of highly skilled employees being high. For the same reason, the chemical industries are quite scale-intensive, ie, the unit price of chemical products depends upon the size of the producing unit and the length of the production run.

The genesis of chemical engineering education in Canada was the formation in 1878 of a diploma program in Analytical and Applied Chemistry in the School of Practical Science, University of Toronto. In 1904 a course in chemical engineering was offered and in 1906 the School of Practical Science became the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering. Twenty Canadian universities now offer undergraduate and graduate programs in chemical engineering. Details of the special research interests are published annually in the Directory of Graduate Programs in Chemical Engineering in Canadian universities.

Canada's economy is still highly dependent on the RESOURCE industries, ie, FORESTRY, MINING, METALLURGY and ENERGY. The role of chemical engineering in these industries underlines the breadth of the profession. The PULP AND PAPER INDUSTRY involves the separation of lignin from cellulose and the formation, at very high speeds, of sheets which are amenable to a multitude of applications, the most important being in communications. Chemical engineers are involved in every phase: reactors for the digestion process, the behaviour of fibre suspensions, the application of surfactants and coatings, large-scale filtration and drying. Because the paper industry is so energy-intensive, striking advances have been made in energy economy. Adhesive development has been crucial to the huge plywood industry.

In the metals industry, the flotation process depends upon knowledge of surface chemistry and the design of machines to exploit this knowledge in the concentration of ores. The revolution in the steel industry, the basic oxygen process, depended upon the development of plants for producing oxygen in tonnage quantities. The hydrometallurgical processes used for COBALT and NICKEL recovery at Sherritt Gordon depend upon research in reaction rates, diffusion, and heat and mass transfer.

The stability of modern life depends upon a sufficiency of energy and food. Because of the availability of hydroelectricity, Canada has an important world role in electrochemistry for metal refining and for the production of hydrogen as a possible candidate for energy storage and transportation power. The technologies of PETROLEUM processing and of PETROCHEMICAL production (the basis of Canada's PLASTICS-PROCESSING INDUSTRY) are chemical engineering developments which have resulted in refineries throughout Canada and in a concentration of petrochemical industries in Ontario and Alberta. The Canadian NUCLEAR industry involves uranium extraction and concentration and the evolution of the CANDU reactor, made possible through extensive chemical engineering in the production of heavy water and purified uranium oxide, and in the transfer of heat under extreme conditions.

Responsibility for the productivity of the FOOD AND BEVERAGE INDUSTRIES is shared among agriculturalists, mechanical engineers and chemical engineers. The latter have made their contribution through the technology of the fertilizer industry, crucial to the continuity of current patterns of food consumption. In future, provision of protein and carbohydrate will provide a chemical engineering challenge as food processing increasingly employs the techniques of cryogenics, radiation preservation and high-vacuum technology. Here a bridge is forming to the emerging BIOTECHNOLOGIES, with their promising techniques of gene splicing, enzyme technology and new paths to chemical synthesis.

In addition to the foregoing examples, the chemical engineer makes large contributions to PHARMACEUTICAL, paint, TEXTILE, adhesive, health care and environmental technologies as the bridge between the laboratory and the production-scale plant.


The Canadian Society for Chemical Engineering is the principal technical organization of professional chemical engineers in Canada. It is a constituent society of the Chemical Institute of Canada, with a membership of over 1500 in 1996. In the same year, it was estimated that there were 10 000 chemical engineers in Canada. The society publishes the Canadian Journal of Chemical Engineering (established 1957) and organizes 2 conferences annually, a chemical engineering exhibition and professional development programs. In 1981, together with the Interamerican Congress of Chemical Engineering, the society hosted the Second World Congress of Chemical Engineering, held in Montréal and attended by 6500 chemical engineers from all over the world. In 1987 the society participated, along with other engineering societies, in the Engineering Centennial Conference in Montréal.

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