Friday, July 12, 2013

Teaching Chemical Engineering to Chemists

The Institute of Chemical Engineers in England is now offering a 5-day course in "Chemical Engineering for Scientists". Having gotten all three of my degrees in chemical engineering, yet spending most of my career doing chemistry, I can well appreciate the differences. Sadly, I don't think the chasm needs to be all that great. Much of it could be shortened by chemists being taught some physics that they are not normally exposed to. In particular, the subject of transport phenomena.

Transport phenomena is an all encompassing subject (principally) concerned with how momentum, energy and mass are transported in a system. While these are commonly called fluid mechanics, heat transfer and mass transfer, names that suggests that they are diverse subjects, in most cases, the underlying mathematical equations can be quite similar. For instance, here are the basic equations for diffusion of momentum, heat and mass
In all cases, the diffusing quantity is simply proportional to a gradient. Other similarities exist for more complicated situations as well. (Unfortunately, the analogies can't be used in all situations, as there are not momentum and mass transport phenomena equivalent to radiation.)

For a number of decades, transport phenomena was taught as a single class to chemical engineers, using a text whose lead author was a physical chemist. This is not engineering - this is physics. Knowing this subject matter has helped me and continues to help me as a chemist, far more than any of my "hardcore" engineering classes (Control theory, reactor design...)

A number of years ago, a very good chemist friend of mine was trying to dry a coating in a continuous oven. The coating wasn't drying and so she kept turning up the oven temperature (slowing down the conveyor was not an option). Eventually the oven was hot enough that it dried the coating, but it also scorched it too. My suggestion was to lower the temperature and increase the air flow rate, a suggestion that solved the problem, and a perfect example of how knowledge of transport phenomena can be extremely helpful.

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a post bashing a proposal to incorporate polymers into the chemistry curriculum, despite polymers becoming more and more a significant part of modern civilization. If a similar proposal were made to incorporate transport phenomena into the chemistry curriculum, you would be hard pressed to find a stronger supporter. Such a proposal would fit right in line with what I had suggested a chemistry education should be - fundamentals that can then be applied to numerous situations. And that well describes transport phenomena.

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