Understanding Chemical Engineering for Life

Hi there, welcome back to Pearls of Mind site. Time flies and it’s been five years for me now since I first started this blog in January, 2013. You might have noticed so far that many of my writings often discuss about personal, spiritual, and political issues. I realize that not all people can relate well to what I had written. Some people might feel interested, but some others might have also disregarded my stories or perspective. I am totally fine with that! 🙂 I would keep on writing and sharing, hoping that at least a little of inspiration would come to you after visiting this site.

Anyway, this year I am going to write more stories and thoughts from my research and work, the field I am currently working on. Hopefully, there are positive values or useful takeaway that can be extracted from here. Alright… in my first blog of the year, I would like to share a little bit of my experience and insight from studying Chemical Engineering, especially for those of you who might be interested to know a little more about a subject of which people often asked me a question, “Why do you learn Chemical Engineering? Are you gonna make a bomb?” 😀

In the following imaginary interview, you might probably get some general ideas of what Chemical Engineering is about.

How would you define Chemical Engineering?

Chemical Engineering is a study of chemical processes that convert raw materials into useful and higher value products by applying the knowledge of physics, chemistry, and mathematics for investigating material and energy transfer in each unit operation (i.e. processing equipment).

What will you learn more specifically in Chemical Engineering?

Some fundamental concepts include, but not limited to thermodynamics, reaction kinetics, mass transport, and heat transfer. In thermodynamics, we’ll learn about relation between internal energy, heat, and work for a number of molecules at different temperatures and pressures in a system, including the spontaneity of reaction. In reaction kinetics, we’ll study the speed of reaction; how fast the reactant changes into products, which could be affected by temperature, pressure, and energy to activate the reaction. The mass transport studies the movement of molecules participating in a process or reaction; how fast the molecules move is driven by the differences in concentration and/or external energy. The heat transfer studies the flow of energy (in the form of heat), either naturally from high to low temperature region or vice versa with the help of external forces. Material and energy balances is the unique subject only learned in Chemical Engineering (you’ll not learn it in other disciplines).

In addition, we’ll also learn some advanced theories and applications, such as momentum transfer, fluid mechanics, engineering mathematics, computation and simulation, catalysis, reactor design, plant design and the economic evaluation. In short, Chemical Engineering students will learn how to be a designer of chemical processes.

How well does Chemical Engineering relate to people’s life?

Nearly all materials that we use everyday are derived from chemical processes. Clothes, drinking bottles, food packaging, glassware, electronic devices, and all the components of your house are manufactured through chemical reactions. The knowledge of Chemical Engineering also plays a vital role in energy industries. All transportation means, from automobiles, ships, to planes, are driven by fuels, which are produced via complex chemical processes. Even not too far, in human’s body itself also undergoes a variety of chemical reactions every day. As long as we can breathe the air, oxidation process occurs in the cells of our bodies. It is clear now that Chemical Engineering is actually not far away from everyday life.

What is the main role of chemical engineers in the real world?

There are actually diverse job opportunities for chemical engineers. Some people may argue that ideally a chemical engineer should work at processing plant, such as petroleum, cement, textile, or paper industry. We know that most of such industries have also impact on the economic development and political aspect of a country. Moreover, chemical engineers can also contribute to the innovation of technologies through a rigorous research and development. More importantly, chemical engineers play an important role in designing process that can transform underutilized materials into valuable products in a clean and sustainable manner. That’s why, a good chemical engineer should be concerned with both ecofriendliness and cost-effectiveness of a process.

If you could extract the insight from Chemical Engineering lessons, what would that be?

There are two keywords that have taught me a very important life lesson: “process” and “balance.”

First, the process we learn in Chemical Engineering, as already mentioned earlier, is actually about transforming less valuable materials into more valuable materials. This process typically consists of three steps: pretreatment, reaction, and separation/purification. In the pretreatment, raw materials will be selected and pretreated in a physical process, such as heating, cooling, or size reduction, in order to minimize “burdens” in the subsequent steps. In the reaction, materials will be exposed to high temperature and/or high pressure environment; they will absorb or release heat, known as endothermic or exothermic process, in which the bonds between molecules are broken or formed. In the purification step, the products resulting from the reaction will be isolated or separated from the other undesired compounds, such as impurities, unconverted reactants or by-products. Both steps require time and it is hard to imagine that raw materials can be changed into pure products instantaneously. Note that a pure chemical product is reasonably expensive since it was formed through a long, hard, and complex process. Fortunately, there is a substance that can speed up the reaction, called catalyst, which can “magically” reduce the amount of energy required to activate the reaction.

Second, the balance is very important in all the process. This concept is based on the fundamental laws of material and energy conservation. In an ideal process, the amount of input materials should be equivalent to that of output materials. The same is true for energy. All this means that there should be neither accumulation nor losses of material or energy in the process; a good process should not corrupt.

So, what is the life lesson? What can you learn from that?

Life is like the “process”. We used to be like the raw materials; in our old life, we might often feel less valuable and it seemed impossible to be a good person with great impact. However, through a series of process, that is often painful, unpleasant, or inconvenient, we have been growing to become a better person. We might think our circumstances and environment often “heat up” and “pressurize” us so much, however we have been actually transformed into a valuable product after being “purified” from all the impurities in our hearts and minds, such as hatred, envy, anger, and other negative emotions. This is not an instant “process” and often demands our patience, endurance, and persistence. Our characters are shaped along the way; there are some “bonds” we need to make while some others we need to break. Ultimately, when we turn into a “pure product”, our values are so high that people would give respect and honor to us. I believe that prayer and faith can be the good “catalyst” for our life process. (Hopefully, the already good reaction is not reversible) 😀

Not less importantly, the “balance” is what we always need in the “process” of life. All the blessings and good things in our life are not supposed to accumulate for our own. Our money and talents are to be shared with others, especially those who are in need. We come to this world without carrying anything and we’ll one day leave this world without carrying anything. Knowing this insight, we need to keep every aspect in our life in balance if we want to go through every life process as ideal as possible. For instance, whenever we feel that we had overworked, we can keep the balance by taking a break with some fun or relaxing activities. There is a case when the process is not in balance, for example due to an excessive amount of heat (overheating) that would potentially fail the process. This condition might result in a poor product that is less useful and even rejectable. If you are happy, don’t be so happy that you ignore the other person’s struggles. If you are rich, don’t be too rich that you neglect the poor. If you are religious, don’t be too religious that you become judgmental to others. If you are smart, don’t be too smart that you underestimate the lowly ones. Studying Chemical Engineering is truly a life-transforming experience to me.

I got you!

See you in the next posts.

ChemEng in Life

Please be advised that you can also read the similar contents of this blog for Indonesian versions in the following links:

Menemukan Makna Hidup dalam Teknik Kimia (1)
Menemukan Makna Hidup dalam Teknik Kimia (2)

Vancouver, January 31, 2018

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