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Chemical engineering is a fascinating and an ‘always expanding’ conglomerate of science. Chemical engineers can change our perspective of the world due never-ending experiments and testings; they work to improve the public’s’ quality of life by trying to prevent issues like starvation, pollution and disease. The reason we own and use most of our everyday items is due to the evolution of chemical engineering and technology as a whole. Chemistry has always infatuated me through its contrast in complexity and simplicity. It is transparent and straightforward if looked at from a broad angle; however, as we get closer to the image, we tend to see various complications. To me, chemical engineers are like surgeons as they save, not only people, but the environment, money, resources etc. And they have not stopped. New solutions to problems are being found constantly due to continuous research and analysis. The way scientists view chemical processes now to how they did in the late 1800’s has drastically changed. In this essay, I will give an overview of what chemical engineers do and will focus on process development engineers and the improvements they have made on processes overtime through different laboratory experiments. Furthermore, I will look at the origin of chemical engineering and experiments that changed chemist’s’ perspective and the scientists that conducted them.
Chemical engineers develop and design processes to produce new materials from raw ones. They formulate new chemical processes or reactions that produce the desired products efficiently and effectively. Initially, chemical engineers began by testing their experiments in a laboratory; a scaled-down experiment. Consequently, once the process has been tested and approved, it is then projected into a full-scale production. Due to its importance, chemical engineering is required in most industries in order to keep processes economical. Different types of chemical engineers perform different tasks. For example, a product/ process engineer follows the exact definition mentioned earlier; they improve products and the processes in which they obtain them. Likewise there are nuclear engineers, energy engineers, petroleum engineers, etc. In a company, many different types of engineers come together to discuss the most efficient and secure way to produce the product. However processes only got efficient overtime. The first ever American chemical plant was opened in Boston in 1635 by John Winthrop Jr; they produced saltpeter and alum. As a result of this development, we now have access to gun power which comes from saltpeter and we use alum when tanning. Many products have developed and improved from previous test runs and experiments. We have gained information about their consequences. For example, when inhaled, saltpeter can cause respiratory problems like asthma and other breathing related diseases. If it were to touch your skin or eye, it could irritate you (you’d get redness and itchy). If someone were to ingest it, a number of side effects could occur, for example: blue lips and fingernails, abdominal pain, dizziness, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Keeping in mind that saltpeter was used as gunpowder so many soldiers would use it carelessly on a regular basis in order to survive. Accidents are bound to happen, therefore, several deaths were due to the use of saltpeter. We now know the risk in consuming products better than we did before due to our better understanding of science as a whole and engineers have generated new ways in which the production and end product is not harmful to the population when used. Through this we can see that chemical engineering has completely evolved. The perspective of chemical engineers has also changed overtime. In the beginning, chemists used their time to try and understand why things were the way they were and tried to understand the fundamentals of chemistry. Later, chemists attempted to try and make an individual’s life more comfortable to live, by conducting experiments using the fundamentals discovered. Chemists then tried to make society benefit from their work as they attempted to produce their findings on a larger scale. However due to large scale production, the environmental risks increased drastically which sets us up to the present, where chemists attempt to make life easier for the public but also try to help keep the Earth’s environment a safer and greener place. In total, there are four main stages to the evolution of chemistry.
At first, chemical engineers mainly focused on discovering what substances are. They worked on the fundamental principles of chemistry and made discoveries that now define the subject. The development of the periodic table is one of the most constitutional discovery/ invention known to any chemist and it helped open our eyes to different aspects of chemistry. Initially there were two chemists, Democritus and Leucippus, who introduced the idea of an atom. They concluded that all matter is composed of atoms separated by empty space through which the atoms move and that atoms are solid, homogeneous, indivisible, and unchangeable. Their reasonings for all apparent changes in matter is that it is the result from changes in the groupings of atoms. They understood that there are different kinds of atoms that differ in size and shape and that the properties of matter reflect the properties of the atoms the matter contains. In 330 BC, Aristotle then considered the four element theory (earth, fire water, air); however the elements we know today was given its name in 360 BC. In 1778, Antoine Lavoisier wrote the first extensive list of elements containing 33 elements & distinguished between metals and non-metals. He named the elements carbon, hydrogen and oxygen; discovered oxygen’s role in combustion and respiration; established that water is a compound of hydrogen and oxygen; discovered that sulfur is an element, and helped continue the transformation of chemistry from a qualitative science into a quantitative one. In 1828, Jakob Berzelius developed a table of atomic weights & introduced letters to symbolize elements. This was the first steps to creating the periodic table according to the elements present in our world. In 1864, John Newlands arranged the known elements in order of atomic weights & observed similarities between some elements. Later that year, Lothar Meyer develops an early version of the periodic table, with 28 elements organized by valence and the famous Dmitri Mendeleev produced a table based on atomic weights but arranged ‘periodically’ with elements with similar properties under each other. His Periodic Table included the 66 known elements organized by atomic weights. In 1913, Henry Moseley determined the atomic number of each of the elements and modified the ‘Periodic Law’. Lastly, in 1940, Glenn Seaborg synthesized transuranic elements (the elements after uranium in the periodic table). Chemists then focused on making an individual’s life more comfortable to live by conducting experiments using the knowledge gained in the past. By 1879, Thomas Edison had invented the first electric bulb. He had researched various materials like metal filaments and around 6000 other organic fibers from around the globe. He later discovered that the Japanese Bamboo was the ideal material in the production of filament lamps.
By 1883, he learnt that electrons flowed from luminous filaments and that the lamp could function as a valve using a metal-plate insert, while taking only negative electricity. He not only discovered the first electric bulb, but he also devised many other objects like the phonographs, kinetoscopes, movie cameras, carbon microphones, vacuum diodes, etc. The majority of his and many other scientists’ inventions of his time strove to improve an individual’s’ life and create a more comfortable lifestyle; however, they did not think to see the consequences and faults in their experiments. The impact that Edison had on people was enormous and he certainly made life easier for people around the world. Without bulbs, we would not be able to perform everyday tasks properly and efficiently. Through mass production of products such as the light bulb, humans have contributed to an immense amount of environmental damage. Now, chemical engineers are not only focusing on making our lives easier, but they are trying to keep our environment safe as well. For example: Although, we use bulbs and tube lights everyday scientists have now improved Edison’s version of the bulb into something more efficient and sustainable. The early model of the incandescent light bulb was not efficient; in order for the filament in the bulb to illuminate, electrical energy would need to be passed through the filament to be converted into thermal and light energy. More than 90% of the electrical energy provided is converted in heat energy and only about 10% is actually useful. This makes filament bulbs very inefficient as a lot of energy will be required for the bulb to provide light over a long period of time. Furthermore, these bulbs have a negative impact on the environment. We have established that filament bulbs produce more heat than light which means that the heat produces affects the surroundings. For example, air conditioners would have to work much harder to be able to keep the room cool and we use coal and other fossil fuels to provide the electrical energy required to power them. The more work air conditioners do, the more electrical energy we ‘consume’ which generates a greater volume of carbon dioxide being produced. Although new compact fluorescent lamps cost comparatively more than the incandescent light bulb, they have a larger life span. Filament bulbs only function from 700-1000 hours. Therefore, if used regularly, the lamp will burn out in less than a year whereas compact fluorescent bulbs last between 4 to 5 years. Although incandescent light bulbs are cheaper, compact fluorescent bulbs are more economical since they do not consume as much energy, they are more efficient, and they last longer. These factors would cut back on your costs and would make an individual’s life much easier as: you would not have to pay as much, you would not have to exert unwanted energy by changing your bulbs every year. Scientists make sure that you would help keep the environment cleaner as fluorescent bulbs do not consume as much energy and not use non-renewable resources (the ‘filament’ is made from metal, therefore using filament bulbs depletes those resources as well). One of the most recognized and useful discovery throughout history was made by German physical chemist, Fritz Haber. He produced synthetic ammonia, through the Haber Process, in 1910 in Ludwigshafen, Germany. Haber was born on the 9th of December 1868 in Breslau, Prussia (now in Poland) and was the son of a chemical merchant. He studied at Charlottenberg Technical College in Berlin and attended a semester of study at the Technical College of Zurich, earning a doctorate in organic chemistry by 1891. A few years later, Fritz received a position as junior assistant to Ludwig Knorr, a professor at the University of Jena. By 1905 he had began to work on his research and testings to produce synthetic ammonia. His objective was to ‘fix nitrogen from air’ and synthesize ammonia from hydrogen and atmospheric nitrogen. Nitrogen gas is relatively inert and does not easily react with other elements. However, Haber discovered that, using high pressure and a catalyst, one could react nitrogen gas and hydrogen to create ammonia. The production of ammonia is exothermic and the reaction is reversible.
The Haber Process consists of various steps. Some scientists say that it was likely to be the most important technological innovation of the 20th century as it sustains the food base for the equivalent of half the world’s population today. However, Haber did not use his finding for just plant growth. During World War 1, Haber helped the Germans by creating poisonous gases that could replace bombshells. Ammonia was used as a raw material in the production of fertilizers, but it was also vital in the production of nitric gas, which is the raw material necessary for the production of chemical explosives. Haber used his experiments to create explosives for the German front lines until the end of the war. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work in developing a method of synthesizing ammonia from nitrogen in the air in 1918.
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