What Is Process Design in Chemical Engineering?

Process design entails scientific planning, simulating, and refining processes that use chemical engineering to achieve the desired result. It uses fundamental principles of thermodynamics and material balance to identify the most efficient production methods while considering safety, profitability, and sustainability.

At Advanced Chemtech, we thought you would benefit by understanding the fundamentals of process design in chemical engineering. So, this guide will explore the different roles of process design and how chemical process engineers can help to improve business operations. Finally, we’ll describe what it takes to become a successful process designer in the field.

Understanding Chemical Engineering and Its Role in Industry

Chemical process engineering leverages chemistry, physics, biology, and mathematics principles to design, develop, and optimize processes. It maximizes the efficiency and safety concerns:

  • Production of chemicals.
  • Transformation of chemicals.
  • Utilization of chemicals.
  • Materials.
  • Labor.
  • Energy.

It involves the application of scientific and engineering principles to solve problems involving producing and processing chemicals on an industrial scale.

The Broad Range of Industries Where Chemical Engineers Contribute

As discussed in the Sub-Branches of Chemical Engineering, these scientists can decide to specialize in various sub-niches of the trade. Chemical process engineers play a critical role in numerous industries, including:

1. Chemical Manufacturing

If you’re wondering whether chemical engineers create products, they’re behind the production of chemicals like:

  • Polymers.
  • Pharmaceuticals.
  • Fertilizers.
  • Specialty chemicals.

2. Petrochemical Industry

A chemical process engineer works in petroleum and natural gas extraction, refining, and processing, which involves the production of fuels, lubricants, and other petrochemical products.

3. Energy Sector

Chemical engineers contribute to energy production by designing and optimizing processes for oil refining, natural gas processing, nuclear power generation, and renewable energy technologies.

4. Pharmaceutical and Biotechnology

Chemical engineers are involved in developing and manufacturing pharmaceuticals, vaccines, and biotechnology products, as well as designing processes for large-scale production of therapeutic proteins.

5. Food and Beverage Industry

Chemical engineers play a role in the following:

  • Food processing.
  • Preservation.
  • Packaging.
  • Ensuring safety, quality, and efficient production.

6. Environmental Engineering

A chemical process engineer contributes to environmental sustainability by developing and implementing processes:

  • Waste treatment.
  • Water purification.
  • Air pollution control.
  • Sustainable energy production.

7. Materials Science and Engineering

Chemical engineers participate in designing and producing advanced materials like ceramics, polymers, composites, and electronic materials used in various industries.

The Process Design Workflow: A Step-by-Step Breakdown

Process design directly impacts chemical processes’ efficiency, productivity, safety, and environmental sustainability. It also considers the potential for scaling the process from lab-scale to industrial-scale production, ensuring feasibility and economic viability.

The process design workflow typically includes the following steps.

Step 1: Process Conceptualization and Problem Definition

Initially, the process design team identifies the project’s goals, objectives, and constraints. The chemical engineering team then defines the problem statement, establishes product specifications, and determines the desired process outcomes.

Step 2: Process Flowsheet Development and Analysis

Process flowsheet development involves creating a detailed diagram that shows the sequence of operations, equipment, and materials involved in the process. A chemical process engineer then analyzes the flowsheet for its feasibility, operability, and energy/material balances.

Step 3: Equipment Selection and Sizing

Process engineers select the appropriate equipment in this step and determine their sizes, specifications, and operating conditions based on the process requirements. They heavily consider pressure, temperature, material compatibility, and safety considerations.

Step 4: Process Optimization and Simulation

Process optimization involves fine-tuning the process to minimize costs and waste generation while maximizing:

  1. Efficiency.
  2. Productivity.
  3. Sustainability. 
  4. Product quality. 

A chemical process engineer will use simulation software to model and analyze the process under different scenarios, feasibly optimizing the operating conditions and equipment configurations.

Step 5: Safety Analysis and Risk Assessment

Safety analysis involves identifying potential hazards and assessing risks associated with the process. For the sake of safety and compliance, competent chemical engineering teams take measures to mitigate risks, including:

  • Using safety equipment.
  • Process modifications.
  • Emergency response planning. 

Step 6: Economic Evaluation and Feasibility Studies

The economic evaluation involves assessing the viability and profitability of the process design. Feasibility studies consider capital and operating costs, market demand, return on investment, and environmental impact.

The Relationship Between Process Design and Overall Plant Performance

Process design significantly influences the overall performance of a chemical plant. Well-designed processes lead to improved efficiency, reduced costs, increased productivity, enhanced product quality, and better safety and environmental performance.

A thorough process design minimizes operational issues, ensures smooth operations, and provides a solid foundation for continuous process improvement throughout the plant’s life cycle.

Essential Skills and Tools for Chemical Process Engineers

How difficult is chemical engineering, and what do you need to excel? Well, chemical process engineers should possess the following core competencies:

1. A Strong Foundation in Chemical Engineering Principles

They should deeply understand chemistry, thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, mass transfer, and reaction kinetics.

2. Process Modeling and Simulation

They should display proficiency in using process simulation software, such as Aspen Plus, CHEMCAD, or HYSYS, to model and optimize chemical processes.

3. Problem-Solving and Analytical Skills

They need the ability to analyze complex problems, identify potential solutions, and make informed decisions based on technical and economic considerations.

4. Safety and Risk Assessment

They should possess knowledge of safety protocols, hazard identification techniques, and risk assessment methods to ensure the safe operation of chemical processes.

5. Communication and teamwork

It is paramount to have practical communication skills to collaborate with interdisciplinary teams, convey technical information, and present design proposals.

Top 3 Real-World Examples of Successful Process Design Projects

A trade-off exists between a clean environment and a higher income level in that a more sanitary environment can lead to higher costs in producing goods and services. So, process design is essential in striking the right balance between economic feasibility, environmental sustainability, and technological progress.

Here are several notable successes from various industries to showcase the positive impact of process design.

1. Oil Refining: BP’s Efficiency Efforts

BP invested $270 million to improve efficiency, aiming to increase the output of clean fuels and reduce environmental impact. BP’s engineering team designed a process to convert heavy crude oil into lighter fuel products with lower sulfur content to reach this goal.

2. Pharmaceuticals: Novo Nordisk’s Continuous Manufacturing

Novo Nordisk implemented a continuous manufacturing process to reduce costs and improve product quality with minimal waste generation. The setup included injectable drug delivery systems, automated controls, and predictive analytics software for dynamic process control.

3. Petrochemicals: Sabic’s Sustainable Solution

Sabic produced a sustainable polyethylene product using an energy-efficient process. The design improved the thermal management system, reduced heat losses, and minimized waste generation while meeting stringent safety regulations.

Final Thoughts on Process Design in Chemical Engineering

The natural environment and economic conditions dictate a process design project’s success. As such, chemical engineers must have an array of competencies and technical know-how to effectively balance environmental sustainability with cost efficiency, profitability, and technological progress. Process design plays a crucial role in striking this balance.