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Chemistry and more

From paints to petroleum to cement, steel and aluminium, a chemical engineer’s analytical expertise can be put to use in any industry, says Rahat Bano.

education Updated: Jan 19, 2010 16:56 IST
Rahat Bano

It has been a family affair. Born into a family of chemical engineers, Sandeep Lanjewar used to work at his father’s paint manufacturing plant in Nagpur during the holidays.

“My grandfather was a chemical engineer. My father is a chemical engineer,” he says, so it was but obvious that Lanjewar enrol for the BE programme in chemical engineering at Mumbai’s Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT), considered one of the best for this discipline. However, keeping the paints portion of the curriculum aside, “what I learnt in college was totally different”, says the 23-year-old Lanjewar, now operations officer, catalytic cracking unit (where the products are made usable for consumers), Bharat Petroleum Corporation Ltd, Mumbai.

Chemical engineering does include chemistry but only about 10-20 per cent, says Lanjewar. This discipline is usually chosen by the IIT Joint Entrance Exam finalists, after computer science, electrical engineering and “to some extent” mechanical engineering.

According to Prof. Anurag Mehra, head, department of chemical engineering, IIT Bombay, “This is partly because of the number of job opportunities in the country and also because most people think that chemical engineering is all about chemistry, when, in fact, it is a lot more about physics and mathematics, and now some biology, too.

“Also, what is not understood by most people is that chemical engineers have a lot of ‘overlap’ with other engineering branches, which makes them versatile.”

Chemical engineering, traditionally speaking, is about the design and operation of chemical plants but it is now an inter-disciplinary field.

Says Prof. VG Gaikar, head, department of chemical engineering, ICT, “Chemical engineering is not just about chemistry. It’s a discipline itself with its own characteristics. Knowledge of chemistry is a must, however, to conduct molecular transformations at scales varying from thousands of tonnes to a few kilograms per day.

You need to have proficiency in basic sciences such as chemistry, physics, mathematics and even biology if you wish to opt for the biochemical field after graduation.”

As technology moves ahead by leaps and bounds, those studying chemical engineering today have to deal with new topics such as surface science, nanomaterials (nanotechnology), energy science, and biological processes of industrial importance.

Mehra says, “Many elements of these areas are taught in chemical engineering, and chemical engineers now look at some of these fundamental things instead of large-scale (industrial) plants...

“The discipline has evolved by subsuming these newer things and also by pursuing the understanding of problems with more and more of science, at smaller and smaller levels. A modern curriculum has far more fundamental stuff than the more application-oriented curriculum of yesteryears.”

This interaction between sister sciences has thrown open new professional vistas for chemical engineers, beyond traditional employers such as chemical, paints, oil and gas, pharmaceutical, polymers (plastics), glass, cement and steel and aluminium industries.

“There are a small number of companies that provide research and development-oriented jobs in the newer areas of interfacial/surface science, material science (semi-conductors, electronic and magnetic materials), nanotechnology, biotechnology and biosciences.

“In general, because chemical engineers are trained to develop processes to manufacture all kinds of products, they play an important role in the process development for biological and electronic materials,” says Mehra.

The study programme arms graduates with skills that get them jobs even in the knowledge process outsourcing, management and finance sectors.

Mehra continues, “Chemical engineering is perhaps the most versatile of all engineering branches in that it... provides engineers with the unique ability to deal with widely different areas such as pharmaceutical engineering, material science, biomedical devices and even immunology.”

“There are very bright options,” says Lanjewar. “Everything around you is chemical engineering: water, toothpaste, bed-sheets (dyes), clothes, the food you eat, polythene, (pen) ink, pencil lead. Biodiesels mean chemical engineering. I’m not saying other branches are useless. But look at, for instance, petrol. It’s the main driver of today’s life.”

Yet, Mehra says, “In India, most industries, with very few exceptions, still seek skills patterned on classical chemical engineering. All classical areas are given reasonable focus in the curriculum.”

What's it about?
Chemical engineering, traditionally speaking, is about the design and operation of chemical plants. It is a combination of industrially-relevant chemistry and many physical processes such as fluid motion, energy transfer and diffusion of chemicals. It has evolved into an inter-disciplinary field that combines biology with engineering and technology.

Prof. Anurag Mehra from IIT Bombay explains the difference between chemical technology and chemical engineering. “Chemical technology was the precursor of chemical engineering. It was recipe-based manufacture of useful goods at an industrial scale and was more an art than science. So people studied, in separate streams, how to make paper, dyes, plastics, etc. Chemical engineering was born out of the abstractions taken from the manufacturing processes of many products: so, for instance, heating something or separating two chemicals was common to many technologies, so they came to be studied and designed in their own right.”

Clock Work
The average morning shift of an operations officer at an oil refinery operating 24X7

7.45 am: Check in. Take charge from officer finishing night duty. Take over different tasks that have to be continued or started in the shift, e.g. maintenance or repair of instruments, reactors, columns, vessels, etc

8 am: Put on boiler suit, protective shoes, gloves and helmet. Check that all the 14 operators (technicians) are manning the respective positions in the plant

8.15 am: Meeting with the charge hands (top post among operators), including electrical, instrument and maintenance charge hands to discuss the shift’s tasks, routine work and new jobs to be done. Allocate work to all people in the different teams

8.45 am: Have breakfast in office

9.15 am: Go for a round of the plant to ensure everything is functioning normally, most importantly, the pumps

10.30 am: Come back to office. Verify and mark the operators’ attendance for the month. Follow up on all the tasks

12.30 pm: Lunch
1 pm: Go to the control room to monitor the operation of the plant. Through the control panel, make sure that the conditions (like temperature, pressure) are optimised for maximum yield. Tell one of the operators to increase the reactor temperature (so more LPG is produced)

2.30 pm: See that all work for the shift is almost done

3 pm: Enter the day’s tasks, completed and continuing, in the log book

3.30 pm: Make a list of operators for the next shift. Hand over charge to the officer in the evening shift. Brief him about the continuing tasks and changes made on the control panel. Change into everyday clothes

4 pm: Head home

The Payoff
Salaries depend on your academic proficiency as well as the reputation of the college. At ICT, Mumbai, pay packages for fresh engineers are over Rs 4 lakh per annum. That of of IIT Bombay BTechs joining a PSU or good private company is Rs 5-8 lakh per annum. The median salaries for beginners in India is Rs 1.5-4 lakh per annum

Interest in physics, chemistry, maths (and even biology)
. Should enjoy working with chemicals, machinery and software tools
. Analytical skills
. Innovative approach

How do i get there?
Take science with physics, chemistry and maths at the Plus Two level. After this, you need to clear a written test for entry to a BE programme in chemical engineering

Institutes & urls
. Institute of Chemical Technology (formerly University Department of Chemical
. IITs Bombay, Kanpur, Madras, Kharagpur, Roorkee, Delhi, Guwahati and others
. National Institutes of Technology, Warangal, Surathkal,,

Pros & Cons
. You could be working in one of the most critical sectors (oil) in the global economy
. Job options overseas, such as the Middle East
. Exposure to dangerous chemicals as well as high temperature and noise
. Shifts in plants (refineries) operating 24X7

No limit on innovation here

An expert talks about the evolution and prospects of chemical engineering in the country

What skill sets are required to be a good chemical engineer?
You need to have proficiency in basic sciences such as chemistry, physics, mathematics and even biology.

One needs to have a flair for applying mathematics to the behaviour of reactors in the physical sense to predict the operating parameters. Each combination of reaction and reactor is, therefore, a challenge to a chemical engineer to make it faster, simpler and cheaper.

The increasing competition from different players means ample opportunities for innovation. The chemical industry survives and thrives because of these innovations in processes and products. Each innovation is an intellectual property and is open for challenges. You must be ready to innovate and there is no limit on imagination in the chemical industry.

What changes have come into chemical engineering over the past 25 years?
It has evolved, developing interfaces with newer areas, including biotechnology, biochemical engineering, nanotechnology, and energy engineering, taking advantage of developments in high performance computational facilities, electronics and instrumentations and information processing. The major emphasis now is on the computation side.

Apart from chemical, paints, petroleum, pharmaceutical, polymers, glass, cement, steel and aluminium, and food processing industries, which other fields require chemical engineers?
Although the basic responsibility of a chemical engineer remains in design and operation of chemical plants, the interface helps them enter newer areas.

Large manufacturing facilities such as cement factories, petroleum refineries, oil and natural gas exploration and semiconductor industries all involve chemical engineering operations. Volumes dealt with by chemical engineers vary from a few thousand tonnes a day in the bulk commodity chemical industry to a few grams or kilograms in speciality chemicals, including pharmaceuticals, paints, dyes, vegetable oils and foods.
Other than in core chemical industries, engineers find jobs in a range of industries, including in management, IT, KPO (knowledge process outsourcing) and finance.

It is not uncommon to see chemical engineers changing their field of work because of their excellent analytical skills — from chemoinformatics (application of computer and informational techniques to solve chemistry problems) to bioinformatics to drug delivery systems to molecular modelling to handling systems from nanoscales (a nanometre is one-billionth of a metre) to global scales for environmental impact and climate change.

An upcoming area is energy engineering. The stress is on reducing energy consumption, making processes cheaper and faster. Chemical engineers work with pollution control boards. They do atmospheric modelling, too (in government agencies).

What is the average salary of your fresh graduates?
Pay is upwards of Rs 4 lakh for our graduate engineers. Last year, among firms that recruited from ICT were Godrej, Bharat Petroleum, Hindustan Petroleum, Indian Oil, Reliance Industries, Biocon, Dr Reddy’s Laboratories, Asian Paints and Cadbury’s.

VG Gaikar Interviewed by Rahat Bano