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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 reactions.


  1749: 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 Sulfuric acid.


  1810: 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 Spain 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 England by 1810 and was continually improved over the next 80 years through elaborate engineering efforts. 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.


  1859: The petroleum industry began when Edwin L. Drake drilled a successful oil well at Titusville Pennsylvania in 1859. Others quickly followed his lead, and in a short time oil wells covered the countryside. Just ten years after California's 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 day.


  1859: 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 Britain at that time.


  1869: In 1869 Robert Chesebrough discovered how to make Petroleum Jelly and called his new product Vaseline.


  1873: 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. Solvay 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.


  1880: George Davis(1850-1906), an industrial Alkali Inspector from Britain, founded the Society for Chemical Engineers, which failed.


  1885: With the invention of the internal combustion engine, and the advent of gasoline automobiles in 1885 by Karl Benz, petroleum soon became a favorite energy source.


  1887: 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 universities.


  1888: 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 - 1893), combined Mechanical Engineering and industrial Chemistry in order to fulfill the rising needs of the Chemical Industry.


  1891: 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).


  1892: University of Pennsylvania also developed a Chemical Engineering program.


  1894: Tulane University(USA) became the first southern school, and also the third American school, to offer a program in Chemical Engineering.


  1901-1904: 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.


  1905: Prior to the war, Germany had supremacy in Organic Chemistry and Chemical Technology. It was said  in 1905 that America 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.


  1908: 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).


  1915: 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.


  1934: 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 possible.


  1942: In 1942, Fermi and his co-workers, produced the first man-made chain reaction under the University of Chicago. The 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.