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Academic discipline and industrial activity concerned with developing processes and designing and operating plants to change materials' physical or chemical states. With roots in the inorganic and coal-based chemical industries of western Europe and the oil-refining industry in North America, it was spurred by the need to supply chemicals and products during the two World Wars. The field includes research, design, construction, operation, sales, and management activities. Chemical engineers must master chemistry (including the nature of chemical reactions, the effects of temperature and pressure on equilibrium, and the effects of catalysts on reaction rates), physics, and mathematics. The engineering aspect, involving fluid flow (seedeformation and flow) and heat and mass transfer, is broken down into unit operations, including vaporization, distillation, absorption, filtration, extraction, crystallization, agitation and mixing, drying, and size reduction; each is described mathematically, and its principles apply to any material. Chemical engineers work not only in the chemical and oil industries but also in such processing industries as foods, paper, textiles, plastics, nuclear, and biotechnology.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on chemical engineering, visit Britannica.com.