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History of Chemical & Bioprocess Engineering

Tuesday, 23 April, 2024


University College Dublin was established as a constituent college of the National University of Ireland by Royal Charter granted in December, 1908, following the Irish Universities Act (1908). With the founding of UCD, the Faculty of Engineering & Architecture was created in 1909 consisting of the Department of Civil Engineering. The first BE graduates from UCD were in Civil Engineering but when the Royal College of Science was merged with UCD in 1926, its tradition in Mechanical and Electrical Engineering was incorporated into a new Department of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering. Felix E. Hackett, professor of physics at the RCScI, became professor of physics and electrical engineering in UCD, serving until 1952.

A Developing Industry

The emergence of Chemical Engineering as an identifiable discipline derived from the industrial developments that took place in the 19th century. Manufacture of chemicals in the mid-19th century consisted of modest craft operations. Increase in demand, public concern at the emission of noxious effluents, and competition between rival processes provided the incentives for greater efficiency. For example, the production of whiskey made a major step forward in the early part of the 19th century with the introduction of the continuous "Coffey" or Column still which was a modified version of an earlier still developed by an English man, Robert Stein. The further development of processes to manufacture bulk chemicals such as Sulphuric acid, Caustic Soda, Chlorine etc. using processes such as the Gay-Lussac lead chamber process, The Contact Process, the Solvay process, also contributed to an developing chemical industry.

Early Chemical Engineers

This led to the emergence of combines with resources for larger operations and caused the transition from a craft to a science-based industry. The result was a demand for chemists with knowledge of manufacturing processes, known as industrial chemists or chemical technologists. The term chemical engineer was in general use by about 1900. It was through its role in the development of the petroleum industry that chemical engineering became firmly established as a unique discipline. The demand for plants capable of operating physical separation processes continuously at high levels of efficiency was a challenge that could not be met by the traditional chemist or mechanical engineer.

The Classification of Chemical Engineering

A landmark in the development of chemical engineering was the publication in 1901 of the first textbook on the subject, by George E. Davis, a British chemical consultant. This concentrated on the design of plant items for specific operations. The notion of a processing plant encompassing a number of operations, such as mixing, evaporation, and filtration, and of these operations being essentially similar, whatever the product, led to the concept of unit operations. This was first enunciated by the American chemical engineer Arthur D. Little in 1915 and formed the basis for a classification of chemical engineering that dominated the subject for the next 40 years. The number of unit operations—the building blocks of a chemical plant—is not large. The complexity arises from the variety of conditions under which the unit operations are conducted.

Chemical Engineering in UCD

Chemical engineering began in UCD in 1956 with the graduation of Timothy McCarthy, Peter O’Callaghan, Michael O’Keefe. The Department was headed by Professor John O'Donnell. John Patrick O’Donnell was born in Kilmallock, Co. Limerick in 1920. He was a brilliant student in the Department of Mechanical & Electrical Engineering in University College Dublin from 1939 to 1943, graduating top of his class with first class honours. He worked in the ESB and the Sugar Company for a few years before coming back in 1949 to UCD as a lecturer in Mechanical Engineering. He was appointed in 1957 as the first Professor of Chemical Engineering in UCD - the first in all Ireland in fact - a post from which he retired in 1988. Over the years between, he was prominent in all aspects of life in the College.

The Chemical Industry in Ireland

The growth of Chemical Engineering at UCD was related to the development of the chemical industry in Ireland. Graduates from this department played a major part in this crucial new industrial sector. Professor O'Donnell was appointed by the Government as Chairman of Nitrigin Eireann Teo., and had other board level appointments in the Irish process industry. He was the founding Chairman of the Irish branch of the Institution of Chemical Engineers and served on the Council of the parent body. He was Chairman of Cumann na n-Innealtoiri which later amalgamated with the Institution of Engineers of Ireland, and he was a prominent Council member of the I.E.I. for many years.

A New Home

In 1989, the Department of Chemical Engineering was relocated to the new Engineering Building located on the UCD Belfield campus. In recognition of the fact that the Pharmaceutical & Fine Chemical sector increasingly involves bio-pharmaceutical processes in 2004 the Department of Chemical Engineering changed its name to that of the School of Chemical & Bioprocess Engineering. The School is currently led by Professor Eoin Casey. Since its beginning, over 1,400 engineers have been trained and the School has thus played a crucial role in the development of the Irish economy, where the chemical, biochemical and allied industries are strongly represented. The teaching received by the undergraduates is very much supported by the breadth of research currently underway in the School, and, in addition, the size of the School means that staff, postgraduate and undergraduate students can communicate freely on a day-to-day basis, fostering a culture of insight, encouragement, and openness.