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.
Process chemists may have a bachelor’s, master’s, or Ph.D. degree, and most companies use a mix of people at all educational levels. There are few schools that offer degrees in process chemistry specifically, so currently the vast majority of process chemists learn on the job. The best preparation is a strong understanding of synthesis and thermodynamics, as well as some chemical engineering courses.
Process chemists divide their time between the laboratory and the plant. They are the intermediary between the product development scientists who identified the new product and the chemical engineers who are building the pilot plant or manufacturing plant in order to make large quantities of it. They will spend part of their time at the bench, testing out new reactions on small scales, then move into the plant to implement successful outcomes at larger scales.
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.
Although some process chemistry is conducted overseas to be near outsourced manufacturing, there is still a great deal being done in the United States. Process chemistry will always be required in order to take products from the laboratory to the production line. As long as there is chemical production in the United States, there will be a need for process chemists, especially for specialty and small volume chemicals.
Most classically trained chemists can adapt to the more commercially oriented world of process research and development. Process chemistry involves optimizing a large number of variables at the same time (i.e., balance purity, reproducibility, number of operations, cost per kilogram, etc.). Process chemists never find “the” right answer, but they continually tweak the manufacturing process as variables (such as prices and availability of raw materials) change. They work closer to the final product than research scientists, so they are more likely to actually see a product they worked on make it to consumers. If you’re looking for a job that blends practical and theoretical chemistry and enjoy the continual process of learning, improving, and evolving chemical and manufacturing processes simultaneously, this may be the career for you.
While much manufacturing has moved overseas, significant amounts of process chemistry are still being conducted in the United States. With the growth of small chemical companies, there may be a small increase in demand for process chemists.
Current salary data for this sub-specialty is not currently available.