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June 4, 2001
Volume 79, Number 23
CENEAR 79 23 pp. 63--66
ISSN 0009-2347
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Century-old discipline is ripe for expansion into materials and biomedical product development


For the past 100 years, the fundamental definition of chemical engineering has remained the same: "Chemical engineers take chemistry out of the laboratory and into the factory and the world around us," according to the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), the primary professional society for chemical engineers.

REACHING OUT Tufts's De Bernardez Clark says her department wants to expand beyond traditional biochemical engineering to solve problems involving biological systems.
But over the course of a century, things are bound to change.

During the past few decades, an increasing amount of the basic research in chemical engineering, like chemistry, has been done with an eye toward developing useful end products, especially in materials science and in biomedical areas. An affirmation of this shift was a daylong symposium in late April at Tufts University titled "Chemical and Biological Engineering: The Paradigm Evolves."

The symposium was held to celebrate the centennial of the university's program in chemical engineering and to mark the department's change in name to the department of chemical and biological engineering. The latter served as a jumping-off point for the plenary lectures and a panel discussion to focus on the direction that the field of chemical engineering is heading.

"One hundred years ago, Tufts was among the first five universities to affirm the significance of chemical engineering as an emerging field," notes Eliana De Bernardez Clark, an associate professor and chair of the department. "And now we are taking another step in anticipating the importance and growth of biological engineering, being the first department in the U.S. to adopt this combined name."

Tufts has offered a degree in biochemical engineering--now called biotechnology--for some 20 years, she says. But the department has been expanding its reach into the biological area in recent years by hiring new faculty with specializations in biotechnology, biological transport phenomena, and systems biology. Besides De Bernardez Clark's studies on protein folding and aggregation, some other areas of research in the department include biomaterials, bioremediation, environmental catalysis, polymers, separations, and tissue engineering.

"When we decided to change the department name, we thought it was more appropriate to look beyond biochemical engineering to see where the contributions of chemical engineering in our systems approach to solving problems could play a major role," she says. "The system may not be a biochemical system, but rather a biological system, such as the human body, where some of the parameters that are being described are not just chemical reactions but include biological information."

The broader focus for chemical engineering hasn't been limited to the biological sciences. According to AIChE, some 30 of the 117 chemical engineering departments in the U.S. have changed their names, De Bernardez Clark says. Some of these names include chemical and environmental engineering, chemical and biochemical engineering, chemical and petroleum engineering, and chemical engineering and applied chemistry. There are already departments of biological engineering in the U.S., she notes, but they are all related to agriculture, not chemistry.

One of the earliest departments to add materials to its name is the department of chemical engineering and materials science at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. The integration of materials science into the department came about in the early 1970s, according to chemical engineering professor and department chairman Frank S. Bates. The university's mining and metallurgy department had disbanded, he notes, and a deal was struck to start a polymer program and bring several of the mining and metallurgy faculty into the chemical engineering department.

SYMBIOSIS Wisconsin's Lightfoot observes that systems-oriented chemical engineers and fundamental research biologists need each other to do biological engineering.
"OVER THE PAST dozen years, the materials science and engineering effort has grown enormously," says Bates, whose research includes work on the thermodynamics and dynamics of polymers and polymer mixtures. Other areas of focus in the department include ceramics and electronic, magnetic, and photonic materials.

The department offers degrees in chemical engineering and in materials science and engineering with a single faculty that teaches both parts of the curriculum, he says. "Overall, this arrangement functions well, but as chemical engineering and materials science evolve, we must pay careful attention to the interrelationships between our programs." Hiring faculty outside the scope of traditional chemical engineering has helped shape the department, Bates believes, and "similar bold hiring moves today could catalyze the transformation of all of chemical engineering along new lines."

Chemical engineering originally grew out of the need in the late 19th century to mass produce chemicals and materials. Since then, the discipline has evolved through several paradigms, which were outlined at the symposium by James Wei, a chemical engineering professor and dean of the School of Engineering & Applied Science at Princeton University. These include a preparadigm, which consisted of engineers with no formal engineering education (late 1800s); the first paradigm, unit operations (1923); the second paradigm, transport phenomena (1960); and the currently emerging paradigm--suggested by Wei--molecular product engineering.

When chemical engineering first started, the practitioners relied on a curriculum drawn from a collection of industrial chemical applications, De Bernardez Clark explains. It was not until the unit operations paradigm was introduced that people started to look at chemical engineering as an organized set of tools.

The concept of unit operations was first introduced by chemist Arthur D. Little, who in 1886 founded the consulting firm that bears his name, De Bernardez Clark notes. Little suggested that all industrial chemical processes at that time could be viewed as a collection of basic operations even though the end products were different. He thought chemists should study those operations to observe a commonality between them--for example, by looking at a flow sheet of how various products were made.

"So the concept was, teach students how to do distillations or liquid extractions rather than teach them how to make ammonia or sulfuric acid or some other product," De Bernardez Clark says. "The idea was to teach that there are fundamental units in various processes--unit operations--a macroscopic approach."

Next came the transport phenomena approach, she relates, which was an effort to bring physics into the process to help solve problems at the molecular level. Transport phenomena is concerned with fluid flow, heat transfer, mass transfer, and the ability to measure rates of processes at the microscopic level--it describes unit operations in a lot more detail.

“The time is ripe for the chemical engineering curriculum to include molecular product engineering as a core subject, and to teach molecular structure-property relationships.”
NEW PARADIGM Princeton's Wei believes chemical engineers need to focus on product engineering, not just process engineering.
"IF YOU TAKE a magnifying glass and look at what is going on inside a pipe when fluids are flowing, what is really happening at that level" De Bernardez Clark asks. "For example, how can friction forces be described" Fluid mechanics and heat transfer were also being done by mechanical engineers and civil engineers, she points out, but mass transfer at the time was unique to chemical engineers.

The chemical engineering paradigm now appears to have come full circle. The currently emerging paradigm that Wei identified is a focus on products, much like what chemical engineers did before unit operations arrived. The difference now is that there is a focus on developing products by using a systems approach built on a century of knowledge.

"Chemical engineers need to focus on product engineering, at the molecular level in particular, not just process engineering," Wei stresses. "It may be argued that it is for chemists to invent new products or improve existing products and for the chemical engineers to scale up and to manufacture. But the chemistry curriculum has no courses in product invention and development either."

Academia is conservative relative to industry when it comes to recognizing changes that will affect an established curriculum and coming to terms with them, Wei says. "Our curriculum continues to be dominated by process engineering--how to make products economically and safely. The time is ripe for the chemical engineering curriculum to include molecular product engineering as a core subject, and to teach molecular structure-property relationships as well as the manipulation of molecules to attain desired properties."

In the future, more chemical engineering graduates will be involved in new product development, Wei predicts, and they will need the intellectual tools to be successful. "The Tufts name change to chemical and biological engineering is a very good way to call attention to the added emphasis on biology, especially to help attract student interest, and should play a major role in the evolution of the profession."

The biological field is more conducive to this type of product development, De Bernardez Clark adds, because the unit operations--the necessary tools and processes--are not well established yet. "You really can't define all unit operations for it. So we are taking a brand-new approach. We have an opportunity to help reshape the paradigm."

One example of product engineering success was presented at the Tufts symposium by David A. Edwards, a visiting professor in the division of engineering and applied sciences at Harvard University and scientific founder of Advanced Inhalation Research, now a subsidiary of Alkermes. Edwards described the evolution from the academic lab to a biotechnology start-up of a new technology he helped develop that more efficiently delivers drugs to the lungs by inhalation of novel nonpolymeric particles (C&EN, Sept. 18, 2000, page 49).

The concept is that porous particles 5 to 30 mm in diameter that resemble pieces of crumpled tissue can more effectively be carried by an airstream than conventional denser particles only 1 to 3 mm in diameter, such as liquid droplets. The technology is the basis of several new inhaled drug products in clinical trials, Edwards notes, including an inhaled insulin product being developed by Alkermes in collaboration with Eli Lilly.

Marrying chemical engineering to biology as the faculties at Tufts and other universities have been doing seemingly is a perfect match. "Engineers tend to be systems-oriented generalists seeking useful approximations to permit exploitation of resources while biologists tend to be specialized reductionist scholars seeking true understanding," notes Edwin N. Lightfoot, a professor emeritus of chemical engineering at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who spoke at the Tufts symposium.

Although there are wide and overlapping spectra of skills and attitudes within biology and chemical engineering, Lightfoot says, they clearly need each other to do biological engineering. "Each group in some sense keeps the other honest."

The human body is the most important system to researchers today, notes Lightfoot, whose current research focus is biological separations. Genes, enzymes, and proteins don't function in isolation but rather are connected through a complex network of interactions that are part of the functions of a stable cellular system, he says. What has developed with genomics is that for the first time researchers can identify and even quantitatively measure interactions at the molecular level.

This information can't be handled by conventional tools and concepts of biology, but requires a systems approach to study gene regulation and cellular function, he points out. Engineers have the potential to find ways to adapt and implement their basic knowledge skills in "this enormous, complex, and still poorly organized field that includes a very large number of independent disciplines."

THE TRANSITION to a systems approach for biological engineering will require some humility on all sides, Lightfoot says, because experimentation plays a larger role in the biology arena whereas computation plays a larger role in chemical engineering. Over the years, he has observed that chemical engineers have been trained for employment in large well-organized companies and have developed a well-defined hierarchy based on purely technical skills. However, modern biotechnology is characterized by a wide range of business situations, he says, and even in small start-up companies the technical staff are, for better or worse, heavily preoccupied by business matters.

One example is the career of Paula Soteropoulos, one of the Tufts symposium panel members. Soteropoulos is senior director of operations for Genzyme's Renagel, a drug that binds phosphate to control the level of serum phosphorus in patients with end-stage kidney disease.

Soteropoulos received B.S. (1989) and M.S. (1990) degrees in chemical engineering from Tufts and started her career as a process engineer in the biotechnology industry performing calculations and designing equipment and process flows. Over time, her focus evolved from purely engineering toward business management. Her work is now more integrated, with responsiblity for global manufacturing and product development for Renagel.

"As engineers, we need to be able to step back from the detail, understand the bigger picture, and be open to the opportunities," she says. "I have found that an engineering education, and more specifically a chemical engineering education, provides a way of thinking, reasoning, and problem solving that can not only be used in technical situations but also for business and personnel management."

Chemical engineering is evolving, and its practitioners need to embrace biological engineering and other emerging areas, De Bernardez Clark concludes. "We have to not only open our eyes but also open our arms to these new areas of undertaking for our profession. When we changed the name of our department, we wanted the words chemical and biological to be equal partners in that name. It was a very important distinction we wanted to make, and it was an important decision for us. That is part of the future of chemical engineering, and we are poised to be able to do it."

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