Chemical Engineering at Columbia

Every major university in North America offers degree programs in chemical engineering. The profession is vitally important to the health of the nation's technical industries. One might naturally assume that the discipline simply trains the technical staff of chemical companies to implement production of basic chemicals. But the modern discipline of chemical engineering enables much more. Today, the major chemical companies woldwide are engaged in development and production of diverse, high-value products, as well as in basic chemicals production. These products include specialty chemicals and high performance materials needed for aerospace, automotive, biomedical, electronic, environmental and military applications. Examples include ultra-strong fibers, fabrics, adhesives and complsites for vehicles, bio-compatible materials for implants and prosthetics, gels for medical applications, phamaceuticals, and films with special dielectric, optical or spectroscopic properties for opto-electronic devices. In additiion, chemical engineers now play key roles in a wide variety of industries in the development and production of systems and devices that rely on special chemistries or material response for their function. Examples include chemical sensors, controlled release technologies for medical, personal care and agricultural products and a variety of medical diagnostic devices.

Columbia's program in chemical engineering is one of the oldest in the country. It has continuously evolved since its inception to remain relevant and vital to the nation's workforce. With a brief tour through its history, one can appreciate why this is so.

There have been three stages in the development of the chemical engineering profession in North America. The first commenced with the industrial revolution, spanning about three decades after the beginning of the twentieth century. The discipline was established to support the birth of industries reliant on large-scale chemical and/or physical transformations: textile spinning and dyeing, early synthetic plastics production, fermentation processes for chemicals production, early oil refining and fuel production, early electroplating processes, rubber production and munitions manufacture. During this time the objective of chemical engineering education was to systematize the "unit operations" needed to carry out the industrial chemistries mentioned; the emphasis was on effective industrial practice.

Chemical Engineering departments were first formed at the turn of the century at MIT (1888), Tulane University (1894), the University of Michigan (1898) and the University of Wisconsin (1905). A degree program in chemical engineering was established at Columbia in 1905 and the first class graduated in 1909. John Seaman Bates was awarded in 1913 the first Ph.D. degree. By 1929, the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering was formed and chemical engineering emerged as a formal department. Its first chairman was Professor Daniel Dana Jackson.

During this early stage of the profession, a number of Columbia faculty have distinuished themselves for groundbreaking research discoveries. Professor Leo Baekeland discovered thermosetting polmeric resins, which enjoyed considerable commercial success under the trade name Bakelite. He was awarded the Legion d'Honneur by France in 1923 and was elected to the National Academy of Science and the Royal Society, Edinburgh in 1936. Professor Colin Fink was one of the first to systematically study electroplating and made critical discoveries enabling commercial use of the technique; he was awarded the Perkin Medal of the American Chemical Society in 1933. In part, because of Columbia's history in the two fields of synthetic polymeric materials and of electro-chemical engineering, both remain strong research themes in today's department.

The second stage in the development of chemical engineering as a discipline in this country commenced around the time of World War II and lasted nearly four decades until the late seventies. The war demanded rapid advances in fuel production, munitions manufacture and synthetic materials manufacture, especially synthetic rubber. The war-time technological breakthroughs in fuel and materials production relied heavily on petroleum and coal-based starting materials and spawned a burgeoning petro/coal based chemicals industry after the war. During the post-war era the development of the discipline was dominated by the demand to accomplish large-scale manufacture of petrochemicals and synthetic materials, especially polymers, based on petrochemicals. A fundamentals-based approach, exemplified by the classic textbook on transport phenomena published by Bird, Stewart and Lightfoot at the University of Wisconsin, became the standard for chemical engineering education in the United States. Detailed mathematical modeling became a well-accepted tool for this purpose, and an integral part of chemical engineering training.

Chemical Engineering at Columbia University continued:

During this era, Columbia established excellence as a small department with a specialized research expertise. The tradition established by Baekeland and Fink of research in synthetic polymers and electrochemical engineering was carried on by new faculty in response to technological needs of the rapidly expanding post-war chemicals industry. Professor Henry Linford, who joined the faculty in 1942, was known for his work in electroplating and corrosion of metals. Professor Harry Gregor joined the department in 1967. Gregor first understood the phenomena of Donnan equilibrium in polymeric ion-exchange resins, the fundamental basis for many modern water and waste-stream purification processes. In 1970 the department hired Professor Huk Cheh, who became a leading figure in the study of transport processes governing elecrochemical and bttery technologies. Professor Cheh won the Ruben Biele Chair from the Duracell Company for his innovative electrochemical research. Professor Gyrte was hired in 1972, and made important contributions to the understanding of polymeric ultra-filtration membranes which are the cornerstone of many modern separations and purification processes. Both Gryte and Cheh are still active members of the department today. During this era the department also addressed basic research in process design, directly relevant to the petrochemicals processing. Professor Jordan Spencer, who joined the faculty in 1964, brought modern computational methods for process design into the department's research portfolio.

An important new curricular and research direction in bioengineering was established at Columbia during this time. Bioengineering addresses the production of basic chemicals via biological processes (biochemical engineering) and engineering aspects of medical technologies (biomedical engineering). Formal instruction in biochemical engineering at Columbia first began in 1950 through the efforts of Professor Elmer Gaden, who joined the faculty in 1949. For his basic research and leadership in the field, Gaden was elected to the National Academy of Engineering and became a Fellow of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. Gaden in considered by many to be the "father" of modern biochemical engineering. In the related area of biomedical engineering, the department hired Professor Ed Leonard in 1958. Leonard won the Colburn Award from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers for fundamental contributions to the engineering and design of artificial organs. Leonard remains active in biomedical engineering research at Columbia today, addressing among other issues, the interaction of cells with surfaces.

The third stage of the profession's development began in the late seventies. A shift began in the petrochemicals-based industries away from North America, because of aging domestic infrastructure, high domestic labor costs and offshore control of petroleum resources. At the same time demands for sophisticated high-value products, such as specialty chemicals, high-performance materials, and biomedical products offered lucrative opportunities for US companies, which had historically relied on petrochemical products. These new "high-technology" opportunities demanded changes in the chemical engineering curriculum. Modern degree programs in chemical engineering now emphasize product development and design much more than chemical processing, and offer more diversity and options to the student to explore specialized area of emerging technologies, while maintaining the fundamentals-based approach to problem solving.

Columbia's School of Engineering and Applied Science responded rapidly to the changes in the nation's chemical industry, with aggressive hiring of new faculty having research expertise in the emerging technologies, and with administrative appointments ensuring rapid revision of the curriculum and revitalization of the department's research and teaching infrastructure.

Research in synthetic and biological materials, especially polymers, has historically been strong at Columbia, and has emerged as vitally important in today's industry, especially the sectors adressing electronics, telecommunications and medical technologies. The area has been maintained and strengthened for the department by the hiring of Professors Chris Durning, Ben O'Shaughnessy, and Jeff Koberstein. Durning, who joined the faculty in 1983 is widly known for his work on transport processes in polymeric systems. O'Shaughnessy, a theorist hired in 1988, has made breakthroughs in the basic understanding of polymerization processes, including those in biological systems responsible for cellular function. Koberstein, hired in 2000, is an internationally recognized expert on interfacial and surface properties of polymers and biological materials.

The field of electrochemical engineering, another historically strong research area at Columbia, has become vitally important to the modern electronics, battery and automotive industries and has also been strengthened, with the hire of Professor Alan West in 1991. West won the prestigious NSF National Young Investigator award in 1993. One of the most important new investments in research in chemical engineering at Columbia is in the area of bioengineering. Professor Jim Thomas, hired in 1996, addresses advances in drug delivery by molecular design. Even more recent hires, of Professors Rastislav Levicky and Jingyue Ju in 1998 and 99, respectively, are aimed at developing research activities in medical diagnostics and gene sequencing technologies.

Equally important have been the recent administrative appointments to the department made by the School of Engineering. In 1996, Professors Nick Turro and George Flynn from Columbia's Chemistry department were appointed co-chairs of chemical engineering. Turro and Flynn accomplished most of the new hires mentioned above. They also accomplished acquisition of new laboratory space for the department and initiated important curricular changes. In 2000, Professor Jeff Koberstein was hired from the University of Connecticut (UCONN) and appointed chairman of Chemical Engineering. In addition to his research expertise already mentioned, Prof. Koberstein adds a wealth of experience in the effective administration of a research-oriented, academic department, having been director of the Polymer Science Program and founder of several interdisciplinary research initiatives at the institute of Materials Science at UCONN before his arrival here. Dr. Koberstein has instituted a comprehensive curricular revision and dramatically improved the department's access to and ability to maintain research infrastructure.

Hopefully this brief view conveys the essence of our history and current direction. An education in chemical engineering is very relevant to modern society and offers the student a variety of career paths.

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