Highlights of Chemical Engineering History
Chemical Engineering is
a relatively new field and was formally established in the late 1800's.
Originally, Chemical Engineers were formed to help spend less time and less
money for creating industrial chemicals, which were, because of the industrial
revolution, needed in large quantities. The first so-called "Chemical
Engineers" were either Mechanical Engineers who knew some about chemical
process equipment; Chemical Plant Foremen who had worked a lifetime in the
plant and had learned from their experiences instead of schooling; or Applied
Chemists who had researched and had knowledge of large scale chemical
Lead-Chamber Method was developed in England in 1749 to make sulfuric acid.
A mixture of
sulfur dioxide(SO2), Air, Water, and a Nitrate(Potassium, Sodium,
or Calcium Nitrate) are mixed in a large Lead lined Chamber thereby forming
Another very competitive(and ancient) chemical industry involved the
manufacture of soda ash(Na2CO3) and Potash(K2CO3).
Imports of Alkali, from America in the form of wood ashes(Potash) or
in the form of barilla(a plant containing 25% alkali) or from Soda mined in
Egypt, were all very expensive due to high shipping costs.
Frenchman named Nicholas Le Blanc(1742-1806), a French industrial
chemist, invented a process for converting common
salt into Soda ash. It was invented in 1789, just prior to the French
Revolution, the French government seized Le Blanc's process and factory
without payment. Le Blanc died in poverty. The Le
Blanc Process was adopted in
by 1810 and was continually improved over the next 80 years through elaborate
A petition against the
Le Blanc Process in 1839 complained that "the gas from these manufactories is
of such a deleterious nature as to blight everything within its influence, and
is alike baneful to health and property.
The petroleum industry began when Edwin L. Drake drilled a successful oil well
quickly followed his lead, and in a short time oil wells covered the
countryside. Just ten years after
Gold Rush, By 1860 there were 15 refineries in operation. Known as "tea
kettle" stills, they consisted of a large Iron drum and a long tube which
acted as a condenser. Capacity of these stills ranged from 1 to 100 barrels a
John Glover, who
designed the first mass-transfer tower, is often considered to be the first
Chemical Engineer. At this time, Nitrate was commonly used in reactions. Chile
was the only available source for nitrate, and therefore it was very expensive
to import into Britain. Lead-Chamber Method required Air, Water, Sulfur
dioxide, a Nitrate, and a large Lead container. Of these ingredients the
Nitrate was frequently the most expensive. In 1859, John Glover helped solve
this problem by introducing a mass transfer tower to recover some of this lost
Nitrate. In his tower, Sulfuric acid (still containing nitrates) was trickled
downward against upward flowing burner gases. The flowing gas absorbed some of
the previously lost Nitric oxide. John Glover's tower absorbed extra Nitrate,
which was instead being burned off, and recycled it. This "Glover Tower"
became a standard among Chemical plants in
at that time.
In 1869 Robert Chesebrough discovered how to make Petroleum Jelly and called
his new product Vaseline.
In 1873 a new and long awaited
process swept across England rapidly replacing Le Blanc's method for producing
Alkali. While the Chemistry of the new Solvay Process was much more direct
than Le Blanc's, the necessary engineering was many times more complex. The
straight-forward Chemistry involved in the Solvay Process had been discovered
by A. J. Fresnel way back in 1811, however Scale up efforts had proven
fruitless until Solvay came along 60 years later.
Process was perfected in 1863 by a Belgian chemist named Ernest Solvay. The
chemistry was based upon a half century old discovery by A. J. Fresnel who in
1811 had shown that Sodium Bicarbonate could be precipitated from a salt
solution containing Ammonium Bicarbonate.
George Davis(1850-1906), an industrial Alkali Inspector from Britain, founded
the Society for Chemical Engineers, which failed.
With the invention of the internal combustion engine, and the advent of
gasoline automobiles in 1885 by Karl Benz, petroleum soon became a favorite
George Davis presented a series of 12 lectures on Chemical Engineering at
Manchester Technical School. His information was criticized for being common,
everyday English know-how, since it was designed around operating practices
used by British chemical industries. At this time, however, in the United
States, this information helped jump-start "new" ideas in the Chemical
Industry, as well as spark Chemical Engineering programs at several
The first Chemical Engineering curriculum ever began at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology (MIT). This four year BS(Bachelor of Science) program,
designed by Chemistry Professor Lewis Norton(1855
combined Mechanical Engineering and industrial Chemistry in order to fulfill
the rising needs of the Chemical Industry.
William Page Bryant 1891, was the first of seven students to graduate from
"Course X" and thereby became the world's first formal Chemical Engineer.
MIT gained an
independent chemical engineering department in 1920. Throughout its
prestigious history the University has provided nearly 5000 bachelor degrees
in chemical engineering, and is consistently rated one of the top two chemical
engineering programs in the USA(right behind Minnesota).
University of Pennsylvania also developed a Chemical Engineering program.
Tulane University(USA) became the first southern school, and also the third
American school, to offer a program in Chemical Engineering.
George Davis wrote a "Handbook of Chemical Engineering," which had over 1000
pages about unit operations, now considered to be part of the base of all
modern-day Chemical Engineering.
Prior to the war, Germany
had supremacy in
Organic Chemistry and Chemical Technology. It was said in 1905 that
lagged fifty years behind
the Germans in Organic
Chemical Processing. The development of Catalytic Reforming in 1940 by the
Standard Oil Company(Indiana) had given the Allies an advantage. The reforming
process produced High Octane Fuel from lower grades of Petroleum.
To survive, chemical engineers had to claim industrial territory by defining
themselves and demonstrating their uniqueness and worth. With this goal in
mind, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) was formed in June
of 1908. The answer came in 1915, when in a letter to the President of MIT,
Arthur Little stressed the potential of "Unit Operations" to distinguish
Chemical Engineering from all other professions and also to give Chemical
Engineering programs a common focus. Again AIChE
took action by making Chemical Engineering the first profession to utilize
accreditation in assuring course consistency and quality. AIChE
representatives traveled across the country evaluating Chemical Engineering
departments. In 1925 these efforts culminated with a list of the first 14
schools to gain accreditation. Such efforts were so effective in consolidating
and improving chemical engineering education that other Engineering branches
quickly joined the effort, and in 1932 formed what would later become the
Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).
Arthur D Little recognized that Filtration, Heat Exchange, Distillation, and
other varied processes which were used in different industries were the same.
This idea was called "Unit Operations" and later lead to the integrated
curriculum of today. He stressed the idea of Unit Operations to distinguish
Chemical Engineering from other science and engineering disciplines. Chemical
Engineers were the first to deal with the products instead of the Mechanical
process, and also to study the entire underlying process instead of just one
reaction. Unit Operations were the tool showing the uniqueness and worth of
Chemical Engineers to American chemical manufacturers.
By 1934 Chile was supplying only 7% of the worlds fixed nitrogen (a huge drop
from the 56% supplied in 1913). Synthetic Ammonia production had arrived in
force. As these figures show, synthetic Ammonia production eliminated the
worlds dependence upon Chilean saltpeter. Chemical engineers played a large
role in designing, building, and operating the Ammonia plants that made this
In 1942, Fermi and his co-workers, produced the first man-made chain reaction
success proved that an atomic weapon was possible, Shortly before the outbreak
of World War-I, two patriotic Germans developed a method for producing
synthetic Ammonia. The first plants using this "Haber-Bosch Process" were
constructed shortly after the outbreak of the war.