Prof. Ed Cussler: A Different Chemical Industry

30 September 2015 - 12:59pm

Prof. Ed Cussler: A Different Chemical Industry

An innovative talk given by Prof. Ed Cussler on the changing Chemical Industry.

This talk will discuss whether the skill set of chemists and chemical engineers is appropriate for this altered chemical industry.

A Different Chemical Industry

E.L. Cussler

Chemical Engineering and Materials Science Department

University of Minnesota

Minneapolis, MN 55455


The chemical industry today is changed from the chemical industry of twenty-five years ago. Clear evidence of this change comes from the jobs taken by graduating chemical professionals in the USA. Twenty-five years ago, eighty percent of these graduating students went to the commodity chemical industry, exemplified by Dupont, Exxon, Shell, and Dow. Now, twenty percent do. Twenty-five years ago, around ten percent went to product-oriented businesses like PPG, Pfizer, and 3M. Now, fifty percent do. The chemical industry now has a product focus.

The new product-oriented chemical industry has three categories of products with different key characteristics. The first and most obvious category is commodities, the same products which used to dominate the chemical enterprise. The key for producing these products is their cost. Styrene produced by Dow and styrene produced by BASF are chemically identical; the issue is who can produce large quantities at the lowest possible price.

            The second and third categories of products may be less familiar. The second category involves molecules with molecular weights of 500-700 and with specific social benefits. The most obvious examples are pharmaceuticals. One key to the production of pharmaceuticals is not their cost but their time to market, i.e., the speed of their discovery and production. These products are normally not made in dedicated equipment but rather in whatever reactors are available at that specific time.

            The third category includes products where the value is added by a specific microstructure. The key to these products is their function. For example, I don’t care why my shoes shine after I have applied polish; I only care that they do shine. It is the shine, not the molecule that produces the shine that is important. Customers will pay a premium for such a function, be it in a coating, in a food, or in a cleaner.

This talk will discuss whether the skill set of chemists and chemical engineers is appropriate for this altered chemical industry. While the basic skill set remains strong, the applications currently emphasize commodity chemicals. This emphasis includes such classical subjects like reaction kinetics and thermodynamics. In the future, new topics, including those based on psychology, on sustainability, and on product design, may become more central for chemical professionals.

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