Getting an Optimal Reaction

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If you own an automobile, you probably know what a catalytic converter is—it’s the piece of equipment on your car’s tailpipe that breaks down the harmful byproducts of automobile exhaust so they don’t pollute the atmosphere.

Catalytic converters typically incorporate precious metals, which are coated on structures designed to maximize the surface area and contact with the reactant.

So it seems fitting that chemical engineers are investigating heterogeneous catalysts such as these in their quest to efficiently convert biomass into environmentally sustainable chemicals and fuels.

The 18 graduate and undergraduate students in associate professor Will Medlin’s lab at CU-Boulder are designing and testing metal catalysts, which are dispersed onto inert support materials to maximize the surface area of the expensive metals. They employ powerful spectroscopic techniques (such as high-resolution electron energy loss spectroscopy) to observe how reactions occur on surfaces at the molecular scale.

“Our hypothesis is that the way the reactant attaches to the surface of the catalyst determines how it breaks down,” Medlin explains, “so we investigate methods for forming the kinds of attachments that should be optimal for a given reaction.”

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Why study at CU-Boulder?

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.

Research Opportunities

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.

Where do CU graduates work?

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.

Job Outlook

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)

Starting Salary

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.

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