This blog is my attempt to reconnect with the world of chemistry. I have a PhD in Inorganic Chemistry and make a living doing research for a large company in Michigan. As times have changed, that company has changed its focus and I no longer have as much chance to do the basic, fundamental research which I most enjoy. Through this blog, I am hoping to recapture the magic which I felt during my graduate (and undergraduate) days in college. Expect topics on chemistry and alchemy along with some non-chemistry related items which I think might be interesting.

"The chymists are a strange class of mortals, impelled by an almost insane impulse to seek their pleasure among smoke and vapour, soot and flame, poisons and poverty; yet among all these evils I seem to live so sweetly that may I die if I would change places with the Persian King."

Johann Joachim Becher (phlogistonist)
Acta Laboratorii Chymica Monacensis, seu Physica Subterranea, (1669).

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Chemists vs. Engineers

One of the guys in our group at work is a co-op student from a local university. As part of his engineering degree, he spends every other semester working in our lab receiving a massive dose of industrial reality and forced indoctrination into the world of engineering. His current stint ends this week, so yesterday he presented a summation of this semester’s work to the group. It wasn’t supposed to be a big deal -- a quick, informal 15 minute talk -- but the head of our division (3 or 4 steps up the corporate ladder) decided she’d attend the presentation, and the intensity level ratcheted up a notch or two. Of course, the division head ended up asking all the questions while the rest of us just smiled and watched the student sweat.

The questions were all good, although many of them concerned engineering protocols and methodologies of which I am woefully (and thankfully ignorant). Unfortunately for the student, there wasn’t much data with which to defend himself, due to situations mostly beyond his control. There had been a two month delay in getting the equipment up and running, due to the time required to implement various safety features in our labs. For some unfathomable reason, the safety guys had been (and still are) very nervous about the prospect of piping pure hydrogen and carbon monoxide throughout the building. They take safety much more seriously in industry than they do in graduate school, where safety protocols often involve nothing more than wearing safety glasses and not eating food in the lab, both of which are largely ignored anyway.

Anyway, the presentation ended, 90 minutes later, with very little blood spilt, and with the conclusion that several of the test variables would need to be quantified (by me, unfortunately) before the student’s return in July. So less than two hours later I was attending a meeting to discuss the quantification of these variables – a meeting attended by myself and 3 engineers. I recall the various good-natured rivalries between chemists and chemical engineers back in school, but we all generally thought alike. But these guys are process engineers. Acronyms like DFSS, MCE, Green Y, Red X, and MFEA were flying fast and furious. Process engineers have a very different way of approaching these types of problems. As a chemist, I just want to understand which variables are of interest and how they affect the final results. Process engineers are more interested in maximizing the reproducibility and repeatability of those variables.

For example, let’s suppose I were tasked with improving a known chemical synthesis. I would try to understand the chemical steps involved, I would isolate the important variables, and I would systematically make changes to the procedure to increase the product yield. Process engineers would be more interested in making the prep more reproducible and operator independent (meaning that everyone who followed the written procedure would get exactly the same yield). As a chemist, I might try different methods of cleaning/drying/purifying the starting materials/solvents. Process engineers would rather write solvent specifications and protocols to ensure that the level of impurities were reproducible, although not necessarily lower. They would sacrifice yield for the holy grail of repeatability. In their world, attempts to maximize yields shouldn’t occur until later. Process engineers feel this mindset allows them to solve chemical related problems without having to actually understand the chemistry.

In yesterday’s meeting, these engineers actually wanted to devote almost half of our allotted time just verifying the repeatability of our test as a function of which of us was actually running the test. An analysis of the test variables in question would be squeezed in later. It’s going to be a long three months.

Note: I'm not trying to rag on process engineers too much here. Their techniques are exactly what you need when you are trying to design and operate an industrial process. I would fail miserably were I to ever attempt such a thing. But these techniques don't work so well in the research arena. There is a reason why advanced development groups and product development groups are generally kept apart.


John Fetzer said...

In Myers0Briggs personality typing, most chemists are INTJ and most engineers are INTP. A similar, but very fundamentally different world view. We reach conclusions by filling in blank by interpolation, while they fill them in only by measuring between the gaps.

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