Process Chemistry

While the research chemist may discover a compound that has amazing properties, it isn’t a commercial product until it can be made in sufficient quantities at a reasonable cost. Taking that synthesis from the milligram scale to the manufacturing scale is the role of the process chemist.
Process chemistry is often described as scaling up reactions, taking them from the small quantities created in the research lab to the larger quantities that are needed for further testing and then to even larger quantities required for commercial production. Because some impurities cannot be detected at small scales, a synthesis that works
well on a milligram scale may prove to be inefficient, or even impossible, at a larger scale; therefore, chemists must be knowledgeable not only about reactions but also about impurities that may develop from side reactions.
The goal of a process chemist is to develop synthetic routes that are safe, cost-effective, environmentally friendly, and efficient (in both time and atoms).
Process chemistry requires a blend of theoretical and practical knowledge. In addition to creating the desired product, the process chemist must always keep cost and safety in mind. For example, they will try to avoid mutagens and carcinogens (or use them early in the synthesis so they can be purged before the final product) and use costly reagents only later in the process (when there’s less waste). Sustainable (or green) chemistry is increasingly important and adds another level of complexity to the system.
One advantage of working in process chemistry is that you are working on products further along the development chain, so the odds of working on a product that makes it to market is quite high. Many process chemists develop a great deal of satisfaction from seeing a product they helped develop on store shelves.

Typical Job Duties

  • Develop synthetic plans and design and run experiments to test their suitability for large-scale use.
  • Use a variety of analytical methods to monitor reaction processes.
  • Troubleshoot existing processes—for example, determine what is causing the slime to appear in the scrubber stack.
  • Using design of experiments to change multiple variables simultaneously and identify acceptable ranges for all operational parameters.
  • Improve existing processes to reduce cost and increase reliability, purity, and safety.
  • Use simulation or modeling software to analyze extensive data sets and determine how changes in process affect the final product.
  • Maintain familiarity with, and operate by, Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, and Occupational Safety & Health Administration regulations, including current good manufacturing practices and chemical hygiene plans.

Technical Skills

  • Extensive knowledge and understanding of the relevant chemistry, reaction mechanisms, kinetics, thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, and mass and heat transfer.
  • Ability to interpret data, draw conclusions, and present results.
  • Ability to develop new, creative solutions to obstacles in the path of creating complex synthetic targets.
  • Knowledge of software systems to design, analyze, and troubleshoot flow systems.
  • Ability to prioritize and manage multiple projects simultaneously.
  • Ability to simultaneously optimize many competing variables—for example, the short-term need for rapid product supply and the long-term need for a cost- effective synthetic method.
  • Knowledge in design of experiments and statistical analysis.
  • Experience with flow chemistry and taking analytical measurements under flow conditions is extremely valuable.
  • Technical communication skills, in order to present results in both written and oral report formats.
  • Technical writing skills to maintain excellent, thorough, and reproducible laboratory records.

Career Path

Process chemists generally start out as interns or in other entry-level positions where they learn from more senior scientists. As they gain experience and knowledge, they are given more responsibility and eventually begin training new process chemists. Process chemists tend to stay in the plant longer than chemical engineers, so they often serve as the repository of information about how the plant works. A few process chemists move into management, but the majority continue working in process chemistry.

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