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About this Article
Written by: Gavin G. Erie
Written on: August 15th, 2002
Tags: food & drink, chemical engineering, lifestyle
Thumbnail by: Spiff/Wikimedia Commons
About the Author
In Fall 2002, Gavin G. Erie was pursuing his Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering at the University of Southern California. He had firsthand experience of various industrial processes from working at the ChevronTexaco oil refinery in El Segundo, California.
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Volume III Issue I > Chemical Engineering Your Dinner
The field of chemical engineering has existed since World War I, yet many may have trouble describing what a Chemical Engineer actually does. Chemical Engineering has allowed Americans to enjoy a higher quality of life through the benefits of the products these engineers produce. In fact, industrial processes used by Chemical Engineers are so widespread that we find them in our everyday activities. For example, the distillation process that is employed in the recovery of uranium is the same as that used in making coffee. Through the examination of a typical day in the kitchen, this paper will provide everyday examples of the less widely known industrial applications, including solid-liquid extraction, gas absorption, adsorption, and distillation.

Chemical Engineering is Vital to How We Live

Consider your food intake on a typical day. You may not realize that chemical engineering processes similar to those used in an oil refinery are behind many common food items. You may wake up and make yourself a cup of coffee to start off the day. Then to make sure that your stomach will not start groaning, you have a bowl of cereal - let's face it, who has time to make anything more elaborate in the morning? Later, when you arrive at a friend's house for a barbecue, you realize that he has not started the fire yet. To stop your complaining, he offers you a soda. Later on, you return home to get ready for your date, for whom you have promised to make a romantic dinner. In your best attempt, you prepare chicken Marsala, chicken filets sautéed in wine sauce, and serve it over bow-tie pasta. Surprisingly, every one of these meals relies on various chemical engineering processes.

What is Chemical Engineering?

To many, chemical engineering is a vague subject at best. Most Americans might only be able to describe chemical engineering as the science of making chemicals. But what is a chemical? Surely, petroleum and pharmaceutical compounds are chemicals, but can this category be expanded to include cooking? Webster's Dictionary defines a chemical as "a substance obtained by a chemical process." A process in this sense is any chemical mechanism that is implemented to transform raw materials into desired products [1]. The two principal chemical mechanisms include, converting the individual molecules contained in the sample or changing the concentration of these compounds in the sample. Food is a chemical in this sense, since one makes the final product by combining and changing various raw materials. Cooking is a form of engineering because it involves the use of materials for the benefit of mankind [2].

Breakfast of Champions: A Cup of Joe

When you roll out of bed and start the coffee maker, you might be too busy trying to keep yourself awake to worry about the science that is about to transpire. Nevertheless, coffee making is a prime example of one fundamental chemical separation process: solid-liquid extraction, which is also known as "leaching" or "washing." Water is the liquid used to extract coffee particles from the mixture of solids contained in the coffee grounds. When you roll out of bed and start the coffee maker, you might be too busy trying to keep yourself awake to worry about the science that is about to transpire. Consider what happens when you reuse coffee grounds several times: with each brewing, your coffee becomes more dilute due to the decreasing concentration of coffee particles left in the solid mixture.