About chemical engineering

Jack of all trades, master of them all too!

The discipline ‘chemical engineering’ is often used to describe a really broad area of engineering. It’s hardly surprising then that chemical engineers are known as ‘universal engineers’. At the most basic level a chemical engineer is involved in transforming one thing into another – a bit like a magician! But for a chemical engineer, the magic wand is a microscope and the rabbit could be a complex new process that makes, say, an iPhone bounce or stops ice cream melting.

On a grand scale, a chemical engineer is an ‘enabler’; someone who makes things happen efficiently on a massive, industrial manufacturing scale. They aim to get the best results at the least cost and with the lowest impact on the environment possible. And skills in chemistry, physics and mathematics, and even economics are what makes a chemical engineer so valuable.

As a chemical engineer, you could find yourself working on the following activities:

  • Design and development of chemical processes and equipment
  • Optimisation and control of industrial operations
  • Plant operation and management
  • Fundamental and applied research from the molecular level to full industrial scale
  • Environmental management, monitoring and pollution control

While being a design engineer or a product development manager may sound like an ideal job – there are so many other options for chemical engineers. Think pharmaceutical engineer, oil and gas engineer or even a metallurgist. You could work for multinational firms like Caltex or Shell in petroleum, Seimens in membrane purification, BOC in gases, or in research at ANSTO. You could even end up in consultancy.

What do chemical engineers do all day?

Chemical engineers design, create and optimise the systems and equipment used in chemical, industrial, biological and environmental processes. They produce a range of materials, from fuels and fertilisers to processed foods, beer and wine, polymers and pharmaceuticals.

They also design and operate large-scale chemical process equipment and factories, and play an important role in making industries safer, more efficient and cleaner

Chemical engineering fields

A chemical engineer could use skills in science and maths to work in many different industries and doing many different things. Here’s a start:

Bio-processes – Working in pharmaceuticals and the food and drink industries.

Chemical processes – Involving the fertiliser industry, including pesticides and herbicides, caustic soda, glass and specialty chemicals.

Combustion – Large industrial furnaces such as those for steel manufacture or for power generation from coal or gas, or the recovery of valuable energy from waste.

Environmental – Waste and water treatment, environmental regulations and recycling. Recovering and reusing valuable materials instead of dumping them.

Minerals – Major minerals industries such as alumina/aluminium, steel, copper, lead and gold.

Petrochemicals – Converting oil and gas into plastics, synthetic rubber and other things.

Process control – Instrumentation and control systems which make a manufacturing process run smoothly, safely and efficiently.

Petroleum – Producing oil, gas and LPG from onshore and offshore fields.

Project delivery – Converting the design of a process plant into an efficient, safe operating plant.

Where do chemical engineers work?

Chemical engineers work in places like laboratories, processing plants, engineering design offices, corporate head offices and research institutions, and there are opportunities to work both here in Australia and around the world. 

Mostly chemical engineers work standard hours, but from time to time they may be required to meet demanding deadlines – especially when there is an important project to get off the ground. Chemical engineers may sometimes even need to be on call 24 hours a day. Some may work shifts during the commissioning of new plants.

Chemical engineers are quality control enforcers

Companies that employ chemical engineers include those that produce food, plastics, ceramics, pharmaceuticals, metals and glass. You’ll find chemical engineers working in environmental protection organisations and cleaning up contaminated sites or in water treatment. They work in research laboratories, chemical plants and petroleum refineries. Not to forget iron and steel product manufacturers, producers of organic chemicals and of course the mining and minerals processing industries.

We all dream at some time of being designers and creators. But when you think about it,  none of the cool stuff gets out into the marketplace without a detailed process that has been rigorously tested, checked repeatedly, refined and improved on again and again. It needs to be exactly right, so that it can be recreated over and over again.

Because consumers have high expectations of the things they pay money for, they expect the same experience every time. Chemical engineering ensures that customers receive an identical end product, every time. Also emphasise minimising waste in a time of increasing environmental concerns.

Chemical engineers can work as any of the following: combustion engineers, petroleum engineers, smelting engineers, water treatment engineers, production engineers, biochemical engineers, process control engineers and pharmaceutical engineers.

Past graduates from UNSW Chemical Engineering have been employed within these companies and industries:

  • Caltex/Shell (Petroleum)
  • ANSTO (Nuclear Science and Technology)
  • Seimens Water Systems (Membrane Purification)
  • Port Jackson Partners (Engineering Consultants)
  • Orica (Mining and Explosives)
  • BOC (Gases)

Find out if Chemical Engineering right for you!


More information on Undergraduate, Postgraduate and Research degrees at the School of Chemical Engineering, UNSW.