Chemical engineers use chemical processes to find innovative and creative ways of producing goods that improve and protect human health, the environment, and the economy. The work of a chemical engineer can range from the luxurious (developing softer clothes and better cosmetics) to the lifesaving (producing fire-resistant materials and safer foods). As a chemical engineer, you might be involved in cutting-edge research at a pharmaceutical company, discovering how to extend the shelf life of antibiotics, or you might be part of a creative team at a food manufacturing company, dreaming up a delicious new candy bar.
Chemical engineers are employed across a wide spectrum of industries from traditional chemicals and petroleum-based processes to specialty industries such as pharmaceuticals, food and beverage processing, textiles, microelectronics, and the growing field of alternative energy. Since such processes are often energy-intensive, involve hazardous materials, and produce byproducts and wastes, chemical engineers also work in energy management, safety, pollution prevention, and waste treatment and disposal.
Chemical engineers often start their careers in larger companies and migrate toward smaller organizations of entrepreneurial nature after a few years. As the process industries take on a global character, chemical engineers may be employed overseas for segments of their careers.
Curious about the classes you'll take as a chemical engineering major? Have a look at the sample undergraduate curriculum.
As part of their chemical engineering degree program, students may pursue options in bioengineering, environmental engineering, computers, energy, materials science, and microelectronics. There also is a pre-medicine curriculum. More than half of undergraduate chemical engineering students participate in research opportunities in biotechnology, biomedical and tissue engineering, and emerging energy systems such as solar-driven hydrogen production and nanotechnology. Students also gain hands-on experience through industry co-op positions, which often lead to jobs after graduation. Students can gain professional exposure through the student chapters of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and the Biomedical Engineering Society on campus.
The Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering is one of the top departments in the nation in terms of research. The faculty has won numerous awards for their research accomplishments in areas ranging from biological engineering to functional materials. The department hosts four interdisciplinary research centers including the Colorado Center for Biorefining and Biofuels, the Center for Pharmaceutical Biotechnology, the Center for Fundamentals and Applications of Photopolymerization, and the Center for Membrane Applied Science and Technology.
Undergraduate students are encouraged to pursue research opportunities through independent study, the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, the Discovery Learning Apprenticeship program, or research assistantships with faculty. The department offers a Senior Thesis Option as well as a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) summer program sponsored by the National Science Foundation.
CU chemical engineering graduates can be found at such companies as CH2M Hill, Bend Research, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Halliburton, Honeywell, Corden Pharma Colorado, Isis Pharmaceuticals, and Jacobs Engineering, along with federal labs such as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Many chemical engineering students continue their studies in graduate, medical, or law school. About 20 percent of CU-Boulder engineering bachelor’s graduates (college-wide) continue onto graduate school, gaining admittance to top schools such as MIT, Princeton, Harvard, Cornell, Stanford, University of California Berkeley, and the University of Texas at Austin.
Chemical engineers are expected to see an overall employment decline of 2 percent through 2018. Employment in the chemical manufacturing industry is expected to continue to decline, although chemical companies will continue to employ chemical engineers to research and develop new chemicals and more efficient processes to increase output of existing chemicals. And, there will be employment growth for chemical engineers in service-providing industries, such as professional, scientific, and technical services, particularly for research in energy and the developing fields of biotechnology and nanotechnology. (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)
The average starting salary nationally for a chemical engineer in 2010 was $56,520. CU-Boulder graduates with a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering reported an average starting offer of $54,416.