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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 put to use common 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.

chemical engineering vs. biomedical engineering


Chemical Engineering Curriculum

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). Naturally, a chemical engineering degree program includes coursework in each of these subjects. 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. 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.

In addition to lectures in the classroom and laboratory science courses, students of chemical engineering degree programs will gain hands-on experience through field work and through internship or cooperative programs, the BLS reported. Prospective chemical engineers should always make sure that their degree program has achieved accreditation from ABET (the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology).

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.

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, 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.

Internship opportunities for biomedical engineering students include working with pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and medical device manufacturers, the BLS reported.

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, pharmaceutical manufacturing and wholesale trade, 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 earn a median annual wage of $102,160, compared to the $92,220 median salary for engineers of all types. Chemical engineers working in scientific research and development, petroleum and coal manufacturing and engineering services earn the highest salaries, according to the BLS.

About 32,700 chemical engineers work in America, with employment fields such as the oil and gas industries, medical industry, pharmaceutical industry and biotechnology seeing the most rapid rise in job growth, the BLS reported.

Biomedical Engineering Careers

What 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 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, rehabilitation engineering and – the subspecialty most similar to chemical engineering – 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 $88,040 per year. However, there is a good deal of variance in the salaries in this field. The lowest paid biomedical engineers earn less than $52,070, while the highest paid make upwards of $142,610, the BLS reported. Biomedical engineers working in scientific research and development and electromedical instruments manufacturing tend to earn the highest wages, with median salaries in the mid-$90,000s, while those working in university settings and healthcare and social assistance earn considerably lower wages.

There are about 21,300 biomedical engineers working in the United States, according to the BLS.

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.