Chemistry vs Chemical Engineering

Many secondary school students are thinking about their university applications and there are many new subjects. Two that are commonly mixed up by all but those-in-the-know are chemistry and chemical engineering. Luckily, we have Fahim on hand to help us understand the differences. 

Fahim has a first-class BSc (Hons) in Chemistry, and a PhD in Chemical Engineering. He is now one of Spires chemical engineering tutors and helps students with chemistry at GCSE, A-Level, IB, Undergraduate and Postgraduate levels – as well as giving chemical engineering help to university students. 

“Being a chemistry lover, I have always been amazed by how diverse substances are and I am fascinated to follow the processes of transforming materials into useful products. However, when coming to choosing the degree to study at university, I encountered the dilemma between chemistry and chemical engineering, because I was uncertain of their differences and career pathways, and all the people that I asked seemed unable to provide sufficient knowledge to push my mind towards either choice. Therefore I am writing this article, to help those of you who are facing the same problem as I did make the right choice.

There are those who may argue that the main difference is in the working environment. For example, chemical engineers work in plants whereas chemists wear lab coats. Due to some overlap between the two fields, it can be difficult to completely differentiate them. I will discuss a few fundamental aspects of their ideas, but I believe their most significant differences lie in their concepts.

What is chemistry?

Chemistry aims to understand the compositions, properties, and behavior of matter. Generally, chemists receive very intensive training in chemistry, such as the theoretical knowledge needed to conduct research into the fundamentals of chemicals and develop new compounds. Chemists do not receive training in the design of equipment to make chemicals at an industrial scale.

What to expect from a Chemistry course

–    In-depth knowledge about physical, inorganic and organic chemistry

–    Mathematical methods (mainly calculus), laboratory skills and computational methods

What to do after graduating in Chemistry

An MSc or PhD is usually the next step for chemistry graduates, though not necessarily in chemistry. Graduates have gone on to earn degrees in nanotechnology, pharmacology, forensics, as well as chemical engineering, among many others. The study of chemistry does not ensure a career in the lab for the rest of your life. Many chemical industries offer a variety of employment opportunities. As a chemist, you can also work in many other industries, such as finance, information technology, or education. Of course, you could go on to study Chemical Engineering, as I did, and open up even more opportunities. 

What is chemical engineering?

Chemical engineering is an engineering discipline rather than a science. The field of chemical engineering is quite difficult to define specifically, and I did not realize what it is until I became a chemical engineer. Chemical engineers are trained to use mathematical and physical knowledge including energy balances, material balances, fluid dynamics, and thermodynamics to develop processes that alter the chemical, physical, or biochemical properties of substances, with an emphasis on safety, sustainability, and economics. In essence, it is a process of making things happen when other factors are considered. This process is usually more quantitative and requires extensive mathematics. The chemistry involved is primarily physical chemistry.

What to expect from a Chemical Engineering course

–    Mathematics, physics, physical chemistry and thermodynamics

–    Transport processes (mass and heat transport, fluid dynamics)

–    Designing and modelling

–    Management and economic knowledge

–    Laboratory and computational skills

What to do after graduating in Chemical Engineering?

A chemical engineer can choose from several career paths. Employers such as pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies and oil and gas companies offer excellent employment opportunities for chemical engineering graduates. As a result of the highly transferrable skills learned, chemical engineers are also highly marketable in management consultancy and finance. Also, you will be well-prepared to pursue further studies and conduct research.”

Those are the key differences between chemical engineering and chemistry. Hopefully lots of useful information in there for all the budding chemists and engineers who are going to university from September onwards. Good luck!