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An overview of the chemicals industry

Chemical engineering: industry sector overview

Graduates within the chemicals industry will usually find work in one of four areas: research and development (R&D), design, commissioning or operations, says Sean David, a process engineer at Johnson Matthey.

The chemicals sector encompasses a wide variety of processes and job roles. It covers a huge range of products including food products and additives, pharmaceuticals, fertilisers, catalysts, plastics, batteries, detergents, solvents, paints, cosmetics, petrochemicals, metal refining and much more.

Some of the major companies operating in the industry are Akzo Nobel, BASF, BP, Dow Chemical Company, ExxonMobil, Ineos, Johnson Matthey, Methanex, Mitsubishi Chemical, Reliance, SABIC, Sinopec and Unilever.

Trends and developments in the chemicals industry

The main challenges in the sector recently have been surrounding the environment. The world has a finite amount of resources that we can utilise. Moving away from the use of fossil fuels and plastics and focusing on biodegradables has had a massive impact on the chemicals industry, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Rising costs and the tightening of regulations are also driving the industry to create processes that are as efficient and clean as possible. For example, the industry is working to eliminate emissions that can cause harm to people and the environment and, in countries that are short on water, use less water for processes such as cooling.

Engineering students should also be aware of the changing political climate around the world. When I was at university, issues in the Middle East resulted in a big drop in oil prices, which suppressed the petrochemicals industry for several years and is still being felt today. Equally, the economic boom in China caused a surge in demand for the chemicals industry and a huge number of chemical plants were built, which in turn led to saturation of some parts of the Chinese market.

In more recent news, the speculation of a global trade war will undoubtedly have knock-on effects for the chemicals industry, but it's difficult to know how that will pan out at the moment.

What it's like working in the chemicals industry

Projects in this industry can vary but will generally last several months or years. A research and development project might last a few weeks or months if it's something very specific. However, once you're working on industrial-scale projects, you're looking at years from start to completion.

Typically, graduate engineers will be involved in a variety of stages of different projects to gain a broad range of experiences. I have worked on process development, technical proposals for clients, large-scale projects and commissioning of the plants that I have designed.

If you're keen to travel, this is definitely possible with some organisations. So far in my career I've travelled a bit around the UK, spent a couple of months in China and I'm currently expecting to spend some time in India.

Getting a graduate engineering job in the chemicals industry

There are different areas of the chemicals industry that engineers can work in. Graduates within the sector will usually find work in one of four areas: research and development (R&D), design, commissioning or operations. In R&D, you might be involved in laboratory or pilot plant scale development, or improving an existing chemical process. In the design of chemical plants, you could work on the conceptual stage, basic process design for a technology provider or the detailed design of equipment for a vendor. Graduates working on the commissioning of chemical plants will be involved in the construction and pre-commissioning stages, as well as starting up newly built plants and making sure they are running smoothly. Finally, in operations, you would be looking for ways to optimise the running of an existing plant, troubleshooting any problems that have arisen, and taking on plant and site management duties.

Many large organisations in the chemicals industry run graduate training programmes and university careers fairs are good opportunities to meet potential employers.

The highlights of a career in chemicals

  • The opportunity to work with people from all areas of the world and different social and technical backgrounds.
  • The challenges of solving technical problems as part of a team.
  • The variety of work you can get involved in.

The chemicals industry seeks graduates from the following disciplines:

  • chemical
  • civil/structural
  • control
  • electrical
  • environmental
  • instruments
  • manufacturing
  • materials
  • mathematics
  • mechanical
  • physics
  • software

Thanks to Sean David, CEng MIChemE, for his help with this article. Sean is a process engineer at Johnson Matthey. He has an MEng in chemical engineering from Imperial College London and has worked in the chemicals industry for five years.

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