Chemical Engineers - What They Do

Chemical engineers research, design, and develop chemical processes and equipment, oversee the operation and maintenance of industrial chemical, plastics, pharmaceutical, resource, pulp and paper, and food processing plants and perform duties related to chemical quality control, environmental protection and biochemical or biotechnical engineering. They are employed in a wide range of manufacturing and processing industries, consulting firms, government, research and educational institutions.

Job duties

This group performs some or all of the following duties:

  • Conduct economic and technical feasibility studies in areas related to chemical, petroleum, pulp and paper, food or other processing industries
  • Conduct research into the development or improvement of chemical engineering processes, reactions and materials
  • Evaluate chemical process technology and equipment and determine production specifications
  • Design and test chemical processing and associated plants and equipment
  • Oversee the construction, modification, operation and maintenance of pilot plants, processing units or processing plants
  • Establish and conduct quality control programs, operating procedures and control strategies to ensure consistency and adherence to standards for raw materials, products and waste products or emissions
  • Prepare contract documents and evaluate tenders for the process aspects of industrial construction
  • Supervise technicians, technologists and other engineers
  • May work in an administrative capacity, for example, in the development of guidelines and specifications for the handling of dangerous chemicals, environmental protection, or standards for foods, materials and consumer goods.
  • Chemical engineers may specialize in the products and processes of a particular industry such as pulp and paper manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, petroleum refining, energy processing, plastics, metal extraction and refining, or adhesives and coatings production. They may also specialize in functional areas of various industries such as process control, pollution control or fermentation processes.

Job titles

  • biotechnical engineer
  • adhesives engineer
  • biochemical engineer
  • chemical engineer, environmental
  • chemical process engineer
  • industrial hygiene engineer
  • pulp and paper engineer
  • industrial waste treatment engineer
  • liquid fuels engineer
  • petrochemical engineer
  • polymer engineer
  • chemical process control engineer
  • chemical project engineer
  • refinery engineer
  • waste treatment engineer
Employment Requirements

This is what you typically need for the job:

  • A bachelor's degree in chemical engineering or in a related engineering discipline is required.
  • A master's degree or doctorate in a related engineering discipline may be required.
  • Licensing by a provincial or territorial association of professional engineers is required to approve engineering drawings and reports and to practise as a Professional Engineer (P.Eng.).
  • Engineers are eligible for registration following graduation from an accredited educational program, and after three or four years of supervised work experience in engineering and passing a professional practice examination.

Essential Skills


  • Read e-mails daily, typically from co-workers or clients confirming meeting arrangements, responding to questions or enquiring about the status and content of projects. (2)
  • May refer to guidelines issued by Health Canada and by the United States Department of Health and Human Services to verify that a new product manufacturing procedure meets the required standards and, if not, to identify what needs to be done to meet them. (3)
  • Read federal and provincial environmental regulations with respect to liquid and gas waste, soil contamination and the disposal of residual materials. They refer to such regulations to ensure that their chemical processes and procedures are meeting applicable standards. (3)
  • Read equipment installation and operating manuals. They may read operating specifications in manuals to assess equipment suitability for tasks and plan for equipment installation and commissioning. (3)
  • Review reports on manufacturing processes to identify successes and problems. They use the information contained in these reports to decide what further actions are required. For instance, they may read a validation failure report outlining a potential problem with a blending process, resulting in a reduction in product quality at the end of the batch. (3)
  • Read reports from chemists documenting test results on chemical products and processes. For example, they may read a report on using captisol modified cyclodextrin to improve solubility and stability of insoluble drugs. They must review and evaluate the complex data and analyses contained in each report to decide whether or not they will support the report's conclusions or take action on its recommendations. (4)
  • Read a wide range of academic journals and trade publications such as Chemical Engineering, Water Environment Research or Tablets and Capsules to stay abreast of new chemical equipment, products and processes. They select and read relevant articles to study alternative solutions to particular problems. They also refer to these articles when creating test trials, developing theories or searching supportive evidence for recommendations. (4)
  • May assess the quality and accuracy of scientific articles on new chemical products or processes before they are published in academic journals. For instance, an engineer may be asked to review an article on the advantages of using non-ionic polymers as precipitants. Each of these assessments involves carefully reading a dense and complex article containing specialized terminology intended for a scientific audience, and making high-level inferences to provide critique in the light of industrial and governmental regulations and concerns. The results of the evaluation are summarized in a short paper and given to editorial staff for consideration. (5)

Document use

  • Scan container labels to identify enclosed chemical products, handling instructions and hazards. (1)
  • Read lists of health or environmental standards to be met by engineering projects. (1)
  • Interpret a variety of icons to locate and navigate through manufacturing company, professional association, university, governmental and research institute websites. (2)
  • May review monthly labour and material performance tables to identify upward and downward trending in quality, defects or efficiency. (2)
  • Scan process schematics to understand the various chemical processes used in the manufacturing of products and to identify how such processes could be improved. For example, they may refer to a drawing showing how caustic soda is used in the manufacturing of shampoo to identify process stages and chemical reactions. (3)
  • Analyze graphical representations of chemical test results to identify inconsistencies in data and potential correlations between variables. This analysis may lead them to select a certain variable for inclusion in a determination process or to further refine the methodological approach for subsequent test trials. (3)
  • Use information in Material Safety Data Sheets and technical data sheets for a variety of purposes. They locate information about the composition, molecular weights, exposure limits and handling hazards of chemical products in order to determine the best chemical product to use, design environmental controls, or inform workers about safe chemical handling practices. Chemical engineers must often integrate data from several sources. (3)
  • Review the scale drawings for manufacturing or processing plants to assess the appropriateness and safety of the design. They take measurements from structural and mechanical system drawings to check that new and existing equipment can be set up efficiently. (4)
  • May complete cross-functional evaluation forms before signing off quality assurance investigations. When a deviation from the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) has been brought to their attention, they have to identify parameters (up to thirty) for investigation and each parameter requires the completion of a SOP checklist. At each level of each checklist, chemical engineers have to review and integrate information from several supporting documents. (5)


  • Write e-mail to other engineers, often with attached files and links to information posted at Internet sites. (2)
  • Write short memos to staff to give instructions regarding the operation and maintenance of chemical equipment. For example, they provide instructions to supervisors concerning a shutdown. (2)
  • Write letters to the federal government justifying why pollution ratings recorded in the National Pollution Reporting Inventory (NPRI) have changed by more than ten percent over the last reading. These letters must use an established format and contain an explanation of contributing factors such as excess rain or new equipment. (3)
  • Update the procedures to be used by technicians when implementing new mixing formulas or manufacturing processes for products. These procedures can be one paragraph or several pages in length, depending on the task or process. In large manufacturing companies, chemical engineers may have up to one hundred procedures to keep current, and all or most may need to be updated when a manufacturing process is altered. (3)
  • Draft documents recommending the purchase of new equipment and submit them to management or clients for approval. These lengthy documents generally include a cost analysis for various equipment options, environmental, health and safety assessments, a description of all specifications, an evaluation of several suppliers and a justification of the supplier chosen. (4)
  • Write detailed reports for various clienteles. For example, chemical process engineers write chemical process trial reports for the operations team and edit summary versions for management. These reports provide a description of the trial objectives and testing procedures, a discussion of test results and a set of conclusions. Chemical engineering consultants write preliminary, progress and final reports for their clients addressing the specific technical, process, environmental and resource management issues under study. (4)
  • May write articles for scientific journals, conference proceedings or other research publications. The articles usually involve explaining the research protocols, describing the difficulties encountered in conducting the investigation and applying scientific principles to analyze data. The writing must present a detailed discussion of results obtained and comment on their statistical significance. For example, a chemical engineer might report on series of experiments which explore the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) as an alternative blowing agent for extruded polystyrene. (5)


Money Math

  • Prepare expense reports for out of town business travel, taking into account the number of days and kilometres travelled, a per kilometre rate, the chargeable unit costs for the room and meals and the applicable taxes. (2)

Scheduling, Budgeting & Accounting Math

  • Establish and monitor schedules and budgets for short and long term projects involving the testing and approval of chemical products and processes. They ensure that expenses incurred for human resources, materials and equipment are fully covered by the budget and that projects are progressing within timelines. They frequently have to adjust schedules and budgets because of unexpected events or unforeseen problems. (4)

Measurement and Calculation Math

  • Time processes, such as the process of formulating and injecting a compound, to ensure that it can be accomplished within certain time limits. (1)
  • Calculate and measure out the liquid volumes that need to be added when preparing chemical mixtures or solutions. They perform these calculations using ratios, rates and percentages. (2)
  • Plan the placement of new equipment using scale drawings. This involves measuring scale distances, converting them to actual distances and calculating areas, volumes and perimeters. (3)
  • Use specialized measuring instruments and methods to monitor the values of one or more parameters during lab experiments and trial production runs. For example, a chemical engineer may calculate the percentage of solid contaminants in fluids by conducting a gravimetric analysis. (4)
  • Use advanced mathematical methods and control algorithms to model chemical reactions and chemical processing equipment. For instance, they may set the parameters of a proportional-integral-derivative (PID) controller using the Laplace Transform or compute the convolution of a time-delayed signal using the Fast Fourier Transform (FFT). (5)

Data Analysis Math

  • Compare readings of such variables as temperature or chlorine concentration to acceptable ranges. (1)
  • Analyse monthly data on labour and material performance to identify problem areas which deserve further investigation and to depict trends over time in quality, defects or efficiency. (2)
  • Analyse data on the composition of chemical feedstocks to determine the best product for each process or operation. For example, they may compare the percentage by weight of calcium hydroxide, magnesium hydroxide, dolomite, magnesium oxide and crystalline silica in Dolomitic Hydrated Lime to similar data found for several alternative products. (3)
  • May choose a number of variables related to a process and evaluate the relative effect of each variable through an analysis of variance. For example, for the injection molding process, they may identify the main variables that affect the density of an extrusion foamed polystyrene amongst the blowing agent composition, the temperature of the molten polymer and the resin grade. (4)
  • Identify optimal measurements and testing strategies, potential sources of bias and methodological techniques to detect the presence of chemicals. For example, they may use the flash point technique to detect the presence of fuel contaminants in lubricating oil or develop a test to measure the concentration of organic compounds in blood samples. Once test results have been collected, they have to perform statistical testing to measure the confidence level of results. (5)

Numerical Estimation

  • Estimate the time required to prepare a presentation for management or clients, based on experience. (1)
  • Estimate their quarterly budgets for site or plant maintenance based on past requirements. Most information is known however there must be an allowance given for unexpected equipment breakdowns. (2)
  • Estimate the number of extended trial runs required to obtain a valid statistical correlation between various data. Many factors are involved in the estimate and a fair degree of precision is required to ensure the scientific validity of results. (3)
  • Estimate the potential costs and benefits of proposed industrial processes. For example, they may estimate the cost of building and operating a facility for composting the sludge from waste water treatment as part of an economic feasibility study. Estimating operating costs can be a challenge due to the unknown quantity and characteristics of the sludge to be treated by the facility. (4)

Oral communication

  • Talk to suppliers to obtain quotes and specification sheets on raw materials. (1)
  • Speak to technicians, technologists, tradespeople, maintenance workers and process operators to give routine instructions and exchange information about site operation and maintenance. (1)
  • Interact with other engineers and scientists to share information on testing equipment, materials and data, or to discuss budget, staffing requirements, scheduling and deadlines for common projects. (2)
  • Communicate with chemists and other laboratory workers to monitor the progress in testing operations, to clarify test results and to ensure that everyone is staying within established testing parameters so as to generate useable data. (3)
  • Participate in regular meetings with staff to discuss a wide range of topics including environment, health, safety, production and quality. At these meetings, they may present information on increases or decreases in yields, process or production incidents, and quality control results. (3)
  • Facilitate meetings to review technical reports proposing changes to chemical processes, equipment or products to resolve issues related to environmental protection. They present their findings and recommendations in a concise and persuasive manner and then open the floor to questions. There may be a variety of stakeholders involved in the meeting such as clients, plant managers and chemical engineers from partner organizations, research institutes, educational institutions, consulting firms, professional associations or government departments. (4)
  • Lead problem-solving and process improvement sessions with small and large groups of employees. The chemical engineer's role is to monitor and support the group, through a variety of exercises and settings, in discovering and analyzing problems and developing solutions. At the end of each session, the engineer facilitates the synthesis of information and guides the group in the development of a series of process improvement recommendations which can be presented to clients, plant managers and co-workers. The engineer's team building and management skills may be evaluated based on the success of these meetings. (4)


Problem Solving

  • Encounter human resource problems in their project teams such as skill shortages. They meet with senior management to outline the issue and find solutions. For example, they may discuss whether funding can be made available to recruit team members with the expertise needed. (2)
  • Discover that projects as designed do not meet their objectives. For example, they may realize near the end of a process validation project that the number of trials left will not be sufficient to create a statistically valid analysis. They estimate the number of extended trial runs required to obtain a valid correlation between the data and ask management or clients to extend the life of the project. If they cannot obtain a project extension, they have to find ways of extrapolating existing data to increase their validity. (3)
  • May receive complaints that governmental regulations are not being met. For example, plant employees may complain that specific chemical processes do not respect current health and safety regulations. In such instances, engineers promptly meet with the workers, the union stewards and supervisors. They listen carefully to the workers' complaints and to the other parties' points of view on the matter. They guide the group in coming up with a workable solution that will satisfy health and safety regulations. (3)
  • May observe in processing plants that batch quality is decreasing or has reached unacceptable levels that will result in batch failure. They review all inputs to the process, check schematic diagrams of the plant's piping, discuss processes with operators and co-workers and review maintenance records. They identify the source of the failure and determine protocols required to test the validity of any changes made. They ensure that all operating and maintenance protocols requiring revision are updated and that appropriate training occurs. (4)

Decision Making

  • Select software to simulate chemical reactions or processing conditions, predict potential problems and test solutions. For each available option, they have to review underlying hypotheses prior to making their decision. (2)
  • Decide which jobs to assign to the various engineers, technicians and technologists on staff. They make their decisions based on individual strengths and weaknesses, experiences and abilities to meet deadlines. (2)
  • Decide which chemical product to use for various projects. Their decisions are based on a review of information found in Material Safety Data Sheets and technical data sheets relating to the composition, molecular weights, exposure limits, handling hazards and other characteristics of chemical products. A selection error may have significant cost implications. (3)
  • Decide how end users and maintenance employees will be trained to use new equipment safely and efficiently. Before making their decisions, they have to study several options for training resources, location, duration and delivery based on cost and availability. They may have to take into account employee overtime needs in terms of off-shift training or replacement. Past training decisions provide only limited guidance since they do not relate to the same equipment. (3)

Critical Thinking

  • Evaluate the conformity of a chemical product with specifications submitted to the supplier. They review quality control reports and perform statistical analyses of data to verify aspects such as the colour, viscosity and purity of the product. They may refuse a product as a result of their evaluation. (2)
  • Evaluate the performance of salaried employees using pre-established evaluation grids. As part of the assessment, they determine the extent to which employees have met their various project objectives and respected health, safety and environmental policies and procedures. Their conclusions may lead to recommendations for new job assignments, further training or salary increases. (2)
  • Assess the appropriateness of the installation and configuration of new equipment. Their assessments are based on a review of drawings representing the equipment layout; estimation of expected downtime; and a detailed analysis of how the changes will affect equipment users and maintenance employees. (3)
  • Assess the adverse health, personnel safety and environmental effects of proposed process technologies. They have to review all the laws, regulations, standards and industry codes relevant to this process technology. They have to estimate the increased or reduced emissions which this technology would generate. They then have to determine if adequate measures could be designed to address the noise level, dust and heat generation, physical exertion and ergonomic issues resulting from the implementation of this process technology. (4)
  • Evaluate the adequacy of measures proposed to remedy a decrease in the quality of chemical products. When a deviation from acceptable ranges has been brought to their attention, they identify several parameters and request that each of them be investigated by their staff. Once the investigation has been conducted, they review all supporting documents to ensure that all factors have been evaluated, that the source of the problem has been identified and that plans have been designed to provide corrective actions and preventative measures for the future. (4)
  • may be asked to judge the quality and completeness of articles for publication in journals and trade magazines. For instance, a chemical engineer may be asked by a peer to review an article on the advantages of using non-ionic polymers as precipitants. The engineer evaluates the article based on the soundness of the methodological approach, the validity of research outcomes, the consistency of explanations and results obtained, the clarity of text and the appropriateness of conclusions made in the light of health, safety and environmental regulations. (4)

Job Task Planning and Organizing

Own Job Planning and Organizing

Chemical engineers work in a dynamic environment with many conflicting demands on their time. Their work is team-oriented so that they must integrate their own tasks and work schedules with those of a team of engineers and scientists to develop and monitor action plans, processes and procedures to optimize production, maintain or improve quality and address health, safety and environmental protection issues. Their ability to work on several projects at the same time and determine priorities is critical to their jobs. Breakdowns, emergencies and changing corporate priorities can affect their work resulting in their re-prioritizing and re-sequencing of job tasks. (4)

Planning and Organizing for Others

Chemical engineers may contribute expertise to long-term and strategic planning for their organizations and play a central role in organizing, planning and scheduling day to day operations in chemical processing units or plants. They are also responsible for training and assigning tasks to technicians and technologists assisting them with the operation and maintenance of such facilities. (4)

Significant Use of Memory

  • Remember security codes to access several computers.
  • Remember formulations to prepare regularly used chemical mixtures.
  • Remember toxic properties of chemicals to take precautionary steps.
  • Recall the names of the many engineers, scientists, technicians and technologists working with them to facilitate communication.
  • Remember the acceptable range of values for each parameter to be controlled during process experiments.

Finding Information

  • Refer to textbooks to find formulas such as evaporation and heat transfer formulas. (1)
  • Refer to chemical abstracts, Material Safety Data Sheets and manufacturers' data sheets to find technical information about chemical products. They may refer to several sources when selecting a product for a project. (3)
  • Find solutions to manufacturing and chemical processing problems by reading research papers and technical reports. They need to critically evaluate, analyse, synthesize and integrate information from a wide range of sources, including the Internet, to develop innovative solutions. (4)

Digital technology

  • Use Internet exploration software. For example, they use Internet Explorer or Netscape to locate chemical manufacturer websites and search scientific articles on chemical engineering topics. (2)
  • Use communications software. For example, they use Outlook or WebMail to send e-mail messages with attached documents to project team members on their distribution list. (2)
  • Use word processing software. For example, they use Word to write lengthy operating, maintenance and investigation reports. To create these reports, they import tables and graphics from other applications and use formatting features such as page numbering, heading levels, indices, columns and footnotes. (3)
  • Use database management software. For example, they use Access or FoxPro to create data entry forms, enter and retrieve data from trial test runs and run data queries, interfacing the database with a spreadsheet to observe trending. (3)
  • Use spreadsheet software. For example, they use Excel to create scheduling and budgeting spreadsheets, establish project timelines, monitor the progress of project activities and tasks and track project expenditures. (3)
  • Use graphics software. For example, they use PowerPoint to design presentations for management or clients which outline process changes and analyze production data. To create these presentations, they import process layouts drawn with Visio, photographs prepared with Photoshop, as well as word processing files and spreadsheet tables generated with other software. (4)
  • May use statistical analysis software. For example, they may use KaleidaGraph or SigmaPlot to analyse trial or test results, plot linear functions, calculate means, medians, standard deviations, confidence intervals and perform linear regressions. (4)
  • May use specialized and industry-specific simulation and modeling software. For example, they may use software to simulate specific processes, such as the biological treatment of waste water, to predict potential problems and to test solutions. (4)

Other Essential Skills:

Working with Others

Chemical engineers perform some tasks independently but more generally work with a team of technicians, technologists, engineers, chemists and other scientists. They may work independently when simulating changes to a process or analyzing test data, but their other tasks are carried out with team members. They work closely with management to realize corporate objectives. They collaborate with process operators and maintenance personnel to enhance processes, improve operating parameters and complete shutdown maintenance. They coordinate their own work with that of other engineers and scientists to perform experiments and trials on chemical materials, engineering processes and equipment and to find solutions to problems related to optimization, quality control, health, safety or environmental protection. They consult and collaborate with a variety of stakeholders such as manufacturers, research institutes, educational institutions, consulting firms, law firms, national and provincial professional associations or guilds and government departments to ascertain that chemical products, equipment and processes are safe and in conformity with standards. They supervise technicians and technologists in the operation and maintenance of chemical, plastics, pharmaceutical, resource, pulp, and food or other processing units or plants. They may also mentor engineering students and junior engineers in internship programs and cooperative initiatives as well as on work teams. (3)

Continuous Learning

Chemical engineers are required to continually update their skills and knowledge of chemical products, equipment and processes to keep up with technological progress and changes in health, safety and environmental regulations. On a day-to-day basis, they acquire new learning by discussing with co-workers and colleagues and by reading information found in scientific journals, newsletters, magazines, textbooks, CD-ROMs and websites, as well as in research reports and governmental publications. Chemical engineers are governed by the engineering society or guild of the province in which they practice. They may be required to develop their own learning plan and attend conferences, seminars, workshops or university courses. (4)