1/16/2023 - Technology and Innovation

Chemical engineering, what is that? You eat?

By Tomás Jaimovich

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Imagen de portada
Imagen de portada

Yes you are reading this, it is certainly because you caught the title attention. And in addition to the most probable being that I have no idea what chemical engineering is, if I tell you "Well, but, for you what it is?", you're probably pretty good at it.

Before I continue writing, I will introduce the theme as they introduced me to the moment. I was in high school and I've been thinking for a while I wanted to study. The chemistry itself appealed to me, so I asked my chemistry teacher, "John, what is the difference between Lic. in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering?" "Basically, the chemist can design and obtain the formula for a drug, the engineer produces it in bulk." This means that it is, above all, an engineering in processes.
But don't stay here, Chemical Engineering (and Chemistry Lic also) is much wider.

An introductory story

Long ago, it is known that nitrogen compounds (i.e., that have nitrogen, an element of the periodic table) are fundamental to fertilize the earth. In fact, the most ancestral nitrogenous compound that fertilized the earth was the manure.

Everything changed when, in the 19th century, Europe began to suffer a considerable increase in its population, so it began to demand more fertilizers to increase yield and get more crops. This last is synonymous with requiring nitrogenous products.

Initially, a compound called sodium nitrate was bought from Chile which was explored in Atacama. The question is that sodium nitrate, being a natural resource, was exhaustible and therefore Europeans began to think ways to produce same nitrogen compounds to depend on this situation. Moreover, in Europe there was a time when conflicts and wars between the borders of different empires were frequent, so depending on the transfer of a ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean was nothing strategic.

This is how Fritz Haber, a German chemist, discovered in 1908 a way of producing ammonia (a compound that, when having nitrogen, would serve as fertilizer).

[caption id="attachment_7151" align="aligncenter" width="212"] Fritz Haber, the scientist who was able to raise a solution to the famine that would cross Europe[/caption]

This story ends up being exciting and tragic at the same time when after a few years it is built in the Austro-Hungarian Empire an ammonia production plant. This coincides with the beginning of World War I. This Empire thought it would be a good idea to use ammoniac, especially to produce explosives for war. Fritz Haber, as a scientist, saw himself at a crossroads: this man had developed an idea to save the hypothetical European hunger and now the Austro-Hungarians wanted to use their research to produce explosives for war.Summary of the end of this story: Fritz Haber supports the idea and in fact contributes strongly to the investigation of the poisonous gases into the war. Your wife Clara commits suicide by her husband's decision.

These events are a clear example of the role this type of engineering takes. As much as the chemical engineers did not yet exist, (as a matter of not yet existed the career as such, but that, like most engineering schools, were merging during the S. XX) both Fritz Haber and other important participants of the moment thought a solution to the problem of society, studied their feasibility and designed a production plant.

As we see, engineering itself is a very dangerous domain as well as promising. For example, civil engineering can build a bridge that skips a river and a two cities, but rather builds it badly can be a catastrophe (recommend looking for a short video from the Tacoma Narrows Bridge). Analogously and following the previous story, chemical engineering has the tools to save S. XIX's hunger as well as to produce explosives and poisonous gases that would suffocate the war opponents in their trenches.

This is why today it is essential that students of this career teach themselves to focus their goals on social and environmental, with a lot of emphasis and evaluation of the long-term effects that will produce their projects or future work.

Chemical engineering currently

Today, a large portion of chemical engineering is dedicated to working in oil. What does this mean?

Oil is the liquid part that has been extracted thousands of meters from certain geographic locations where organic matter has accumulated for hundreds of years. Once extracted, several processes are carried out. It turns out that oil is not homogeneous and therefore must be separated (it is called to separate the oil phases). That's how it is, at this precise instant you look at your sides, you will certainly see a large amount of different plastics and products that are manufactured with petroleum derivatives. Personally, I am very against the production of all kinds of oil-based plastics, but it seems to me a good example of the engineering role in the industry.

[caption id="attachment_7152" align="aligncenter" width="452"] Thus, a chemical plant is present[/caption]

Fortunately, there is a lot of interest in renewable energies today, an area where chemical engineering can bring a lot and where there is much to develop. In fact, it seems to be one of the largest industries in terms of I&D in the coming decades.Info from inside: Anything that can be common to a chemical engineer at your house? Have a system of own beer production.

A personal experience

There's a time I've done a very interesting job: I've produced oxidizing for a spaceship engine.Almost all current means of transport consume two fundamental products: fuel and oxidizing.The fuel comes to be the naphtha and the oxidizer that uses, for example, a car, is the oxygen of the air itself. The mix between these, added to a centered, allows a car to start and accelerate.But how does a spaceship move 1000 km high? It certainly also needs a fuel and an oxidizer. The problem here is that in space there is no air (in reality there is, but it is scarce) and therefore a spaceship needs to take from the earth its own oxidizing.In this work, in particular, what was done was produce oxidizing for the spaceship engine: extremely concentrated oxygen water, a product that in contact with the burning skin and with prolonged contact directly consumes the tissues. In view of these dangers protection and equipment is used to treat it. They are components that must be very respected, so safety planning is crucial.Extra fact: concentrated oxygen water was the first non contaminant oxidizer for the environment, something very positive for sustainability in the aerospace industry.In conclusion, chemical engineering is very wide and controversial. It is a domain that, yes, we look out, can bring a lot of debate because, for example, recycling plastics calls chemical engineering. The treatment of pollutants also does. The production of ultra-processed foods and medicines, too.So, do you have any sense of contaminating to then decontaminate? Does it make sense to produce plastics, discard and then recycle them? Does it make sense to get sick to heal? Does it make sense to undo? These are the questions that chemical engineering should be asked in the coming decades and the initial kick for new ventures in industry and technology in general.

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tomas jaimo

Tomás Jaimovich

Hi, I'm Thomas Jaimovich. I'm 24 years old and I studied Chemistry. I am interested in new creations and innovations that improve the quality of life, especially by thinking about the most vulnerable sectors of society. I like to open up to new challenges, as it is the best way to nourish yourself.

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