Process engineers and chemical engineers create new products from raw materials.
An article by Julia Kimmerle
Studying Process Engineering:
That is what it’s about
Beer and headache tablets have one thing in common: to produce them, you need the expertise of process engineers and chemical engineers. The ingredients must be properly mixed, chemical processes initiated and stopped. Process engineers and chemical engineers deal with biological, chemical and physical processes – they break down, clean, mix, separate and ferment raw materials. And they design systems that control these processes. You will find graduates everywhere that consumer goods are produced. Without them, there would be no fuel or fruit yoghurt. The proportion of women is significantly higher than in other engineering fields at around thirty per cent. The aim in both Chemical Engineering and Process Engineering is to create new products from raw materials. The process engineers concentrate on building, operating and improving systems. The chemical engineers, on the other hand, optimise the biological or chemical processes that occur in these systems. Both subjects involve interdisciplinary engineering that spans mechanical engineering, chemistry and engineering physics. Chemical Engineering and Process Engineering are offered at the many universities of applied sciences and some universities as separate degree courses. At most universities, however, the two subjects are offered as specialisations in the Mechanical Engineering degree course. In the first semesters, the aspiring chemical engineers and process engineers learn the basic principles of mathematics, chemistry, biology, physics, geology and computer science, but also of physical chemistry, electrical/electronic and materials engineering, mechanics, thermodynamics and fluid technology as well as measurement and control engineering. At the same time, they learn application-oriented content; for example, in design, they learn how to draw components. In Chemical Engineering, a large part of the degree course consists of practical work and exercises. "Students spend about half their time in the laboratory," says Karl-Heinz Jacob, professor of Chemistry at the FH Nürnberg. Future process engineers also get a chance to try out many practical experiments in the degree course. Tobias Bosse is in his third Master's semester studying Process Engineering at the FH Münster. He likes the combination of theory and practice, for example in planning construction designs for chemical plants in environment and process engineering. "It's fun to calculate how the operation of a biogas plant can be particularly efficient, for instance," he says. Students choose specialisations at the beginning of their studies. They range from the basic principles of design through to apparatus engineering, plastics engineering all the way to renewable energy and environmental engineering. Not every higher education institution offers every specialisation; make sure to find out what's on offer ahead of time. Over the course of studies, students learn about typical system components such as pumps or mixers, and discover which chemical and physical processes take place in certain systems. In the last two Bachelor's semesters, students often do a practical semester. "We usually send them to the chemical industry or to electrical and mechanical engineering companies where they learn what role chemistry plays in different industries," says Jacob. "Far more than half of all Bachelor's graduates go on to pursue a Master's degree course. However, many graduates find good jobs with the Bachelor's degree alone," observes Bernd Schinke, professor of Process Engineering at the Hochschule Mannheim. The Master's degree courses in Process Engineering are generally specialised in, for instance, environmental engineering, bio-processing technology or pharmaceutical engineering. In Chemical Engineering, students can focus, for example, on chemical biotechnology or analytical chemistry. Many chemical engineering processes are still based on fossil raw materials. But natural gas and oil are becoming scarce; renewable energies are therefore more relevant than ever before. Biotechnology and battery and fuel cell technology are also becoming increasingly important for electromobility. More and more computer tools are being used at universities because they make more accurate calculations possible. "Today, we can simulate all processes on the computer, for example a change in temperature or the use of a different pump," says Schinke. "The degree course in Chemical Engineering has recently become more focused on the natural sciences and laboratory work," observes Karl-Heinz Jacob: "The technology has been pushed to the background while analytics, biotechnology and biochemistry are playing an increasingly important role." This also applies especially to the degree in Applied Chemistry which is related to Chemical Engineering. Because engineers often go abroad later on for weeks or even months at a time to plan systems there, many universities attach value to an international focus in the degree course. Some, such as the Hochschule Mannheim, the Technische Universität Cottbus or the private Fresenius University of Applied Sciences in Idstein offer international degree courses which include a semester abroad as a fixed component.
suitability, obstacles, misconceptions
Many universities have introduced course entrance restrictions because the numbers of applicants have been on the rise. It has usually been sufficient to have grades in the two range until now. In some cases, evidence of an eight-week company work placement must be provided before the first semester, but it is sometimes possible to make up the work placement during the studies. Students in this subject should be interested in the natural sciences and technology and enjoy analytical thinking. Many worry about the challenging courses in mathematics, physics and organic chemistry in the first few semesters. "But if you have the right attitude, this is unnecessary," says Bernd Schinke: "You can acquire technical expertise, but not interest in the subject." Serap Üclü, 22 years old and in her fourth semester of Applied Chemistry at a university of applied sciences says, for her, the most difficult part was physical chemistry where students learn how and why materials are converted. But ultimately it's doable. What she likes best about her studies is biochemistry because it is closely related to medicine and biology. "We learn a lot about amino acids, proteins, enzymes, carbohydrates and DNA. I find it very exciting." Since the literature is written almost exclusively in English for both subjects, it helps to have a good level of proficiency. Most process engineers and chemical engineers work in industry – from pharmaceutical production to the food industry all the way to plant construction and engineering. 10 to 15 per cent are employed by associations and organisations. Process engineers are often used in production and plant construction. In the laboratory, they are responsible for producing new products that have so far only existed in a test tube in the kilos or tonnes of kilos. In energy engineering, they are needed particularly for the manufacture of wind turbines or biogas plants. "In the coming years, biotechnology companies in particular will expand and be looking for graduates," says Bernd Schinke. Chemical engineers are versatile; they are often found in the research and development departments of companies. They develop new warning systems in the mineral oil industry. In cosmetics production, they ensure that skin creams are mould-proof without the need for preservatives and nail polish beautifully shines and lasts a long time. At disposal companies, they design water treatment plants, or they generate electricity out of waste. The University Information System (Hochschul-Informations-System) in Hanover surveyed graduates of the subject in 2010. More than 90 per cent had found their first jobs within twelve months with an annual average salary of EUR 39,400.