As you explore your options for an engineering education, you might wonder about the differences between engineering disciplines that sound somewhat similar, like chemical and biomedical engineering. Both of these branches of engineering can have effects on the health care industry, and they put to use many of the same principles of engineering. However, there are differences in the curriculum of chemical and biomedical engineering degrees as well as the work of chemical and biomedical engineers.

biomedical engineering vs chemical engineering

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An Overview of Biomedical Engineering vs. Chemical Engineering

Chemical engineering is the engineering discipline that focuses on using chemistry, physics, biology and mathematical concepts to develop chemical substances that solve problems, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The types of problems a chemical engineer may aim to solve are varied, but they include everything from fuel and industrial chemicals to food and pharmaceutical medications. Biomedical engineering uses many of the same principles and techniques as chemical engineering and other engineering disciplines, but its practitioners focus on one specific type of application: medical and healthcare solutions.

As engineering disciplines go, chemical engineering is a more established discipline with a longstanding history. Chemical engineering is one of the four main disciplines of engineering – the others being mechanical, civil and electrical engineering – and its history as a distinct course of study dates back to 19th-century developments in the field of industrial chemistry. Some of the most respected undergraduate chemical engineering degree programs today, like the one offered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), have been educating chemical engineers for well over 1o0 years.

On the other hand, biomedical engineering degree programs are comparably new, at least compared to other engineering disciplines. In fact, bioengineering is the only engineering discipline that doesn’t predate World War II, the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering reported. The first college biomedical engineering departments – which came into being at Duke University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Virginia and Case Western Reserve University – weren’t developed until the late 1960s, according to the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering.

Chemical engineering remains the more popular of these two majors, although the number of students pursuing biomedical and bioengineering degrees is on the rise. For the 2017 through 2018 school year, 11,384 students earned a bachelor’s in chemical engineering degree, while 7,416 students earned an undergraduate degree in bioengineering or biomedical engineering, the National Center for Education Statistics reported.

Some areas of chemical engineering and biomedical engineering overlap more with one another than others. A chemical process engineer working in a refinery or an engineer specializing in the chemical aspects of nanotechnology may not seem to have much to do with biomedical engineering, but it’s a different story for chemical engineers who specialize in biological engineering. Similarly, bioinstrumentation engineers and biomechanics engineers may seem to be pretty far removed from the field of chemical engineering, but there are also biochemical engineers in this field who, as the BLS reported, study and develop microscopic systems and cell structures to advance innovation in biological applications of engineering.

Biomedical engineering is a subdiscipline of bioengineering, which is the application of engineering concepts and design solutions to problems within biology and the life sciences. While biomedical engineering is specific to medical applications, bioengineering can also apply to areas like agriculture, natural systems and resources and food production. 

Bioengineering vs. Chemical Engineering Coursework

The content of your major coursework will change considerably depending on whether you choose to major in bioengineering or chemical engineering. Either type of program will likely include core engineering coursework that covers the principles and practices of engineering more generally, as well as foundational courses in mathematics and laboratory sciences. Engineering design courses are an important part of an engineering education. While the curricula at some engineering schools only allow for engineering design coursework for seniors, other colleges of engineering build design and clinic coursework into the curriculum early on in a student’s education.

Chemical Engineering Curriculum

Students who pursue a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering should be prepared to spend four years of full-time study completing a rigorous course load of science classes and high-level math courses such as calculus and trigonometry. Much of a chemical engineering student’s science coursework is in chemistry, including the foundations of chemistry principles and chemical practice, as well as organic and physical chemistry. You should also expect to take a sequence of laboratory courses in physics and potentially in areas of biology such as cell biology, microbiology and genetics.

Coursework in how to apply principles of chemistry and other sciences to designing, analyzing and controlling scientific processes are also important in a chemical engineering degree program, the BLS reported. Major coursework in a bachelor’s degree program in chemical engineering includes classes in chemical engineering processes, transport processes, separation processes and mass transfer, process control, chemical engineering materials, thermodynamics and chemical reactor analysis and design. A course in biochemical engineering is also likely to make an appearance in your curriculum. Prospective chemical engineers should always make sure that their degree program has achieved accreditation from ABET (the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology).

Among chemical engineers, a bachelor’s degree is by far the most commonly reported level of education. O*NET reported that 82 percent of chemical engineers reported a bachelor’s degree as their highest level of education. That said, you might also consider going to graduate school. Master’s degrees and doctorates each account for 9 percent of the chemical engineering occupation. Graduate school can be a huge commitment that takes several years, but it doesn’t have to be. Some engineering schools offer five-year chemical engineering programs that award both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree upon completion. These programs can shorten the time it takes to complete a graduate degree.

Biomedical Engineering Curriculum

Unlike traditional branches of engineering, including chemical engineering, biomedical engineering is considered an interdisciplinary field. This means that it draws from many different disciplines or subjects of study and that aspiring biomedical engineers must learn about each of these distinct subjects. The curriculum of a bachelor’s degree program in bioengineering is certain to include biology and biochemistry coursework, but students also complete a sequence of laboratory classes in both chemistry and physics.

Major coursework in biomedical engineering often includes multiple aspects of biomedical engineering design, including experimental principles, computational fundamentals and design development and analysis. Other biomedical engineering classes may include biomechanics, biomaterials engineering, molecular engineering, biomedical instrumentation, quantitative engineering physiology, transport phenomena in living systems, network analysis in biomedical engineering and signal and systems analysis in biomedical engineering. Potential areas of specialization in biomedical engineering include biomedical imaging, biomedical instrumentation, biomaterials and regenerative medicine, nanotechnology, computational biomedical engineering and molecular, cellular and tissue biomechanics.

While ABET does accredit biomedical and bioengineering degree programs, not all schools of engineering offer majors in biomedical studies specifically. However, studying other fields of engineering, such as electrical or mechanical engineering, can provide much of the foundation that aspiring biomedical engineers need, according to the BLS. If you enroll in a different discipline of engineering but want to work in the biomedical field, it is important to take plenty of biology courses throughout your college career as well so that you develop a thorough understanding of biology principles and practices.

Like a chemical engineering program, biomedical engineering students will learn in the classroom, in the laboratory and out in the field. Aspiring biomedical engineers should study general engineering design, biomaterials, computer programming, circuit design, fluid and solid mechanics and physiology, according to the BLS.

Internships, co-ops and other opportunities for industry experience are valuable for engineers. Chemical engineering interns might work for companies that produce health care and personal care products, medicines, semiconductors and more. Internship opportunities for biomedical engineering students include working with pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and medical device manufacturers, the BLS reported.

Biomedical Engineering vs. Chemical Engineering Careers

Earning your engineering degree is only the start of your career. When you’re choosing between the chemical engineering and biomedical engineering majors, you also want to look at your career prospects.

Chemical Engineering Careers

Chemical engineers find work in a number of different fields. The industries that employ the most chemical engineers include engineering services, research and development in the sciences, petroleum and coal manufacturing, wholesale trade and pharmaceutical manufacturing, according to the BLS.

In the course of their work, chemical engineers spend their time in laboratories, offices, refineries and industrial plants. They are responsible for developing chemical compounds, processes and technological equipment of many kinds, including those used to create food, energy sources and medicines. Chemical engineers are researchers and innovators in manufacturing and chemical processes. They design and test technology and safety protocols used for working with chemicals.

Even as the profitable field of engineering goes, chemical engineers are highly paid. They earned a median annual wage of $108,540 in 2020, compared to the $96,310 median salary for engineers of all types. Chemical engineers working in petroleum and coal manufacturing, engineering services and scientific research and development earned the highest salaries, according to the BLS.

Biomedical Engineering Careers

What exactly do biomedical engineers do? They use their knowledge of biology, medical science and engineering theory to develop problem-solving new procedures and technologies in the form of medical devices and equipment and computer systems and software. The work of biomedical engineers includes everything from creating new machines for diagnostic tests to developing artificial organs for transplant.

Some biomedical engineers work primarily in the research and development of new engineering solutions, while others install and maintain these technologies in medical facilities and train health care professionals in their use. Subspecialties within the field of biomedical engineering include biomechanics, clinical engineering, bioinstrumentation, systems physiology, and rehabilitation engineering. The biomedical engineering subspecialties most similar to chemical engineering are biochemical engineering and biomaterials. Engineers who specialize in biomaterials work with the materials that are used as medical implants or to build medical devices, according to the BLS.

Biomedical engineers earn less than chemical engineers, with a median wage of $92,620 per year as of 2020. However, there is a good deal of variance in the salaries in this field. The lowest-paid biomedical engineers earned less than $56,590 in 2020, while the highest-paid biomedical engineers made upwards of $149,440, the BLS reported. Bioengineers and biomedical engineers working in navigational, measuring, electromedical and control instruments manufacturing earned the most money in 2020, with the BLS reporting a six-figure salary for this industry.

About 26,300 chemical engineers work in America as of 2020, with employment fields such as manufacturing industries seeing the most rapid rise in job growth, the BLS reported. There are about 19,300 biomedical engineers working in the United States, according to the BLS.

Choosing Between a Chemical Engineering Major and a Biomedical Engineering Major

While there is some overlap between the subjects of study in chemical and biomedical engineering curricula and in the potential job duties and work settings of engineers in these fields, there are also important differences. Students debating between these two branches of engineering should give some thought to what they would like to do with their degree and which educational background best fits their strengths and interests.

In terms of the focus on application, chemical engineering is the broader field of study, while biomedical engineering has a narrower focus on medical and health applications. However, in terms of discipline-specific preparation, biomedical engineering is the broader field of study due to its interdisciplinary makeup, while practitioners who are chemical engineers by training approach the field from a background that consists of more extensive study in a more limited area.

Neither degree option is necessarily better or worse than the other. If you prefer to keep your career options open beyond applications that pertain to the health care industry, you might prefer to major in chemical engineering. However, if you know you want to work in biomedical applications, majoring in biomedical engineering will provide you with a more comprehensive foundation in the different types of engineering principles and practices that apply to this area, without limiting you to the perspective of a single engineering discipline.

In some roles and on some projects in biomedical engineering, practitioners who majored in chemical engineering and biomedical engineering may end up working together and performing many of the same job functions. 

Additional Resources

Top 10 Highest Paying Engineering Careers

What Classes Will I Have to Take for a Degree in Chemical Engineering?

What Classes Will I Have to Take for a Degree in Biomedical Engineering?

What Is the Benefit of a Chemical Engineering Degree Vs. a Chemistry Degree?