A job for those who like to make things happen
Thinking big is crucial to the understanding of chemical engineering. Basically, chemical and process engineers take the original research and findings of chemists and microbiologist and design the processes and the industrial plants to make sufficient amounts of product, by the most efficient means to be commercially viable. Their job is to bring discoveries out of the laboratory and into production.
There are many sophisticated chemical plants in the state making products as diverse as antibiotics, drinks and foods, paints, artificial fibres, plastics, industrial diamonds, adhesives, fertilisers and cement. All these industries require chemical engineers.
"Chemical engineers work very closely with chemists and microbiologists in relation to the selection of materials, for example in improving food processing technology and refining the product," Padraig Kirk of the Institute of Engineers of Ireland (IEI), says. "They are also involved in designing and constructing industrial plants."
Not only do they design and build industrial manufacturing plants and processes, they also supervise and manage the production of the goods, carry out research and develop new processes and production methods, and look after safety and environmental protection at the plant. "They are responsible for the smooth running of the entire plant. They could be working as the plant manager or hand-in-hand with the chemist in the lab," Kirk says.
The scope of the chemical engineer's job means they are brought into regular contact with other professions around the plant, from the chemists and microbiologists to surveyors, architects, technologists and scientists. This means that, more so than other engineering professions, the chemical engineer needs to be good at dealing with people.
"The chemical industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the country," so, says Kirk, the job prospects are good. "There are plenty of challenges and opportunities for promotion for people who have a flare for sciences and maths and are good at problem-solving."
John O'Shea, head of chemical and process engineering at the Cork Institute of Technology, says graduates can find themselves climbing the career ladder quite quickly. "A lot of our graduates working in the pharmaceutical companies have got involved at a high level very quickly as project managers and group leaders. They may ultimately find themselves in overall charge of the operation of the plant, managing other engineers. People do work abroad and find they are able to compete with the best. If you've graduated from the course, you'll find work," he says.
A C3 in higher-level maths is essential for entry to the Cork IT course and O'Shea recommends two or three science subjects - physics, chemistry and biology are all studies from first year. The course covers all the traditional aspects of chemical and process engineering, as well as many more modern features such as biochemical engineering, computer- aided engineering, and environmental technology.
The final-round points for the course this year were 460, and 445 for chemical engineering in UCD. It is a course that requires dedication, but, says O'Shea, students tend to do well. "Don't get put off by the points, that's simply supply and demand. Virtually everyone gets through. This year we had 125 people across the years doing exams and only three of them didn't get through." Of those three, he says, two are repeating and one is finishing a project.
The career is suited to people who "like to make things happen", says O'Shea. "You need to have an enquiring mind, be good at trouble-shooting and maybe taking over the actual running of the plant. If you like physical chemistry and maths, it's a good way of combining the two," he says.