Chemical Engineering is Not Applied Maths: A Concrete Example: Question

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Author: Dr. Sean Moran

It seems that some of you are having difficulty getting your heads around what I mean when I write that “mathematics is not the foundation of chemical engineering”, so let me give you a really simple illustration from my teaching practice. I used to ask the brand-new intake to a chemical engineering course at Nottingham University to answer the following question:

“What is the optimal height to diameter ratio for a tank for liquid with a 5 m3 capacity made of 3 mm thick stainless steel”.

Now, though they had on average between them about 1.5 “A” grades or higher in A level Mathematics, less than 1% of them could even think of a way to address the problem in thirty minutes, working in teams of four.

Every chemical engineer reading this ought to be able to think of at least two formal ways they would know to answer the question rigorously and I would hope at least a couple of other ways which the new intakes might not yet have come across.

I would hope that all the experienced people also have a number of questions to ask before they start doing sums, which will radically alter the answer.

Rather than giving spoilers, I’ll ask questions as was my habit when teaching (much to the dismay of those students who expected spoon-feeding):

  1. How many techniques has a new entrant to a chemical engineering course passed exams in which can be applied to solve this problem?
  2. How many other ways are there which are at least as good for professional purposes?
  3. What questions should you ask before commencing sums?
  4. If chemical engineering really is applied math, how come 99% of top math students at a top university cannot even start to solve this problem?
  5. How come many of their lecturers are no better?
Click on the link above to see the answer to this question.

The author originally wrote this article on LinkedIn. The article was reproduced here with the permission of Author.


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