Issue Date: June 13, 2011
Process Development Shines In Tough Times
Although the U.S. chemical industry has suffered unusually severe job losses as a result of the Great Recession, a few safe harbors still offer shelter from the economic storms. Biotech firms, for example, are welcoming chemical engineers with open arms, particularly those interested in process development.
Chemical engineering employment is “always steady, with fewer ups and downs in the job market” than chemists have to contend with, says David G. Jensen, managing director for biopharmaceutical life sciences at Kincannon & Reed, a Waynesboro, Va., executive search firm. “I’ve been doing this work for 25 years and have never seen a downtime for biotech chemical process development engineers,” adds Jensen, who writes extensively about careers and also moderates the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s online Science Careers Forum.
Robust demand for chemical engineers may explain why wages are holding up well in the profession. In a survey of salaries for 2011 bachelor’s degree graduates, chemical engineers placed first, with an average salary offer of $66,886, according to the National Association of Colleges & Employers.
The American Chemical Society’s own surveys of members consistently show that chemical engineering graduates receive higher salaries and are more likely to hold permanent full-time jobs than graduates with degrees in chemistry (C&EN, March 14, page 52).
Chemical engineers have several options for employment in the biotech industry, which utilizes cellular and biomolecular processes to develop technologies and products in sectors as varied as drug development, human and animal nutrition, agriculture, fuels, and basic and intermediate chemicals.
Process development is a key stage in the scale-up of biotech processes to commercial manufacturing, Jensen says. Process development includes process research and innovation; scale-up; design, construction, and operation of pilot-plant or laboratory units; technology transfer; and optimization of manufacturing processes, according to the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.
Chemical engineers fill several types of process development roles at Bayer HealthCare, a Bayer AG company that includes animal health, consumer care, diabetes care, and pharmaceuticals divisions. Paul Wu, for instance, works on cell culture processes for making recombinant proteins at Bayer HealthCare’s facility in Berkeley, Calif. He heads the “upstream” process development group, responsible for the first few steps in the production of replacement factors for hematology disorders and antibodies for oncology needs. He has a counterpart who is responsible for the later “downstream” stages in the process.
Some of the engineers on Wu’s team are involved in the development of the cell culture processes. Once a protein candidate has been identified as a desirable therapeutic product, these engineers initially design a lab-scale mammalian cell culture process to make it.
In designing the process, the engineers seek the best operating conditions to ensure good cell growth, including settings for pH, oxygen levels, and mixing. “The quality of the product that we make is affected by the conditions in the reactors,” Wu says, “so we have to understand the biological aspects of these molecules.”
In one example, the engineers needed to minimize a particular protein impurity when making one of the company’s hemophilia treatments in a cell culture process. The impurity leaks out of cells if the cells break in the reactor.
“The cells are not like a mechanical object,” Wu says. Because of the natural variation that arises in biological processes, “sometimes they break, sometimes they don’t.” In this case, the challenge for the process development engineers was to learn why cell breakage occurs, figure out how to monitor the dynamics of breakage, and then find a range of operating conditions to minimize breakage. “You need to design a safety net to make sure all of the cells succeed,” Wu says.
Chemical engineers also help design protein recovery and purification processes at Bayer HealthCare, Wu says. In addition, they’re involved in scaling up production of the therapeutic proteins. This process development work involves more traditional chemical engineering challenges, such as coping with pressure drops in chromatography columns used to purify products or ensuring that conditions in a large-scale reactor are just as mild as those in a lab-scale reactor, Wu says.
Process development chemical engineers take on a similarly varied range of roles at Poet. This Sioux Falls, S.D., company claims to be the largest ethanol producer in the world and a leader in biorefining.
Some Poet process development engineers are engaged in R&D. Their work resulted in a key patent for the company, says James Moe, chief operating officer of Poet Design & Construction and of Plant Management. Ethanol in the U.S. is usually made by converting cornstarch into sugar, which is then fermented to produce ethanol. Most producers use a cooking process to convert the cornstarch into sugar, but Poet’s R&D engineers devised a raw starch hydrolysis method that instead uses enzymes to convert starch into sugar, thus eliminating the energy-intensive step.
Other Poet chemical process development engineers are part of the design and construction team that builds new plants and deploys new technologies to existing biorefineries. Or they participate in plant management, putting together strategies to continuously improve processes at the biorefineries.
Later this year, the company plans to break ground in Emmetsburg, Iowa, on its first demonstration-scale cellulosic ethanol plant, which will use corncobs, leaves, husks, and stalks as feedstock. “Today, those processes don’t exist at a commercial level, so that’s going to be a very exciting area for process development engineers,” Moe says. “I think it will be a growth area for the industry.”
“There’s huge opportunity” for chemical engineers at industrial biotech firms, which derive fuels and chemicals from sugars, starches, and biomass, agrees Christophe Schilling, chief executive officer of Genomatica, a San Diego firm that uses renewable feedstocks, rather than traditional oil or natural gas feedstocks, to produce intermediate and basic chemicals.
Schilling expects Genomatica will be “the first to commercialize a renewable process for an intermediate chemical that is able to compete with and complement an existing, large petrochemical market.” As Genomatica and other industrial biotech companies begin commercializing their products, they’ll attract additional investments in the field that will lead to job growth, Schilling believes. However, he cautions that the industry outlook will be less rosy if the cost of fossil-fuel-based feedstocks drops considerably.
With its partner Tate & Lyle, which produces food ingredients, Genomatica is starting demonstration-scale production of its first product, 1,4-butanediol (BDO). In time, Genomatica plans to manufacture a range of basic and intermediate chemicals from renewable feedstocks.
BDO is used in products such as spandex, automotive plastics, and running shoes and has traditionally been derived from fossil-fuel feedstocks. Genomatica devised its alternative process by engineering an organism to convert sugar derived from corn and other crops into BDO (Nat. Chem. Biol., DOI: 10.1038/nchembio.580)—a feat that no naturally occurring organism could accomplish, Schilling notes. This fermentation process is followed by purification and concentration steps.
Some chemical engineers at Genomatica are involved in traditional process development, much like that at any other industrial biotech or chemical company, Schilling says. “Those chemical engineers focus in some cases at the lab scale, trying to test and develop modifications and improvements to the process,” he says. “They’re also active in the scale-up of the process from lab to pilot to demonstration and ultimately to commercial scale.”
Senior Process Engineer Michael Japs is part of the team that is developing Genomatica’s overall plant design and commercialization strategy. “It’s really exciting because it’s not petrochemical design or refining design,” Japs says. “It’s a mix between that and biotech and life sciences. It’s still large-scale commodity chemicals, but it’s got aspects of fermentation and bioprocessing that make it unique. So it’s a very challenging role for a chemical engineer in a space that’s not widely developed in industry yet. It’s exciting to work on cutting-edge technology and process development in an industry that’s up and coming.”
The company also has chemical engineers whose broad training enables them to “bridge the world of biotech and traditional chemical engineering,” Schilling says. These engineers modify the organism and its metabolic system to enhance “Bio-BDO” production. Their insight is invaluable in designing the manufacturing process, Schilling says, because they “understand how any changes they make to the organism could have implications for the rest of the downstream process.”
For example, Genomatica’s Stephen Van Dien worked with a team of microbiologists, molecular biologists, and fermentation scientists to develop the Escherichia coli strain that produces Bio-BDO. Van Dien is now director of technology development.
Chemical engineers at Genomatica are involved in several other roles, including process simulation, lab-scale process development and research, and design of fermentation reactors and optimization of conditions to create lots of product.
Biochemical engineers’ backgrounds are just as varied as the roles they fill. Bachelor’s-, master’s-, and Ph.D.-level chemical engineers can all find a home in the biotech industry. “Unlike chemists or biologists, chemical engineers with bachelor’s degrees typically are ready to come to work,” Wu says.
He recommends that students obtain a solid grounding in chemical engineering. But “knowing how to learn is far more important than what you know,” he says, because scientific knowledge, particularly in bio-related fields, “may evolve very quickly within a few years after your graduation.”
For those interested in metabolic or genetic engineering in particular, Van Dien suggests supplementing chemical engineering training with experimental biology. “It’s a good idea to really understand what’s involved at the bench level with manipulating the genes of an organism,” he explains. “In a position where you’re going to interface with experimental biologists, being able to understand their language is worthwhile.”
Students who pursue advanced academic training should develop a couple of areas of expertise to bring to a potential employer, such as fermentation, mathematical modeling of metabolism, or process design, Van Dien recommends. These students can benefit from a blend of computational as well as experimental work, Schilling suggests. “At the end of the day, if you want to go into industry, it all comes down to implementing whatever designs you have and bringing those designs to life,” he says. “And you need to have that experience of being in the lab to do that.”
Chemical engineers who plan to go into process development should take advantage of internships to supplement their academic training with practical experience, says Poet’s Moe, who adds that his firm offers internships each summer. Internships in biotech would be his first choice, but students could also benefit from working in a chemical or petroleum refinery, a pharmaceutical company, or even a fermentation enterprise such as a distillation company. This exposure will help “them gain a sense of whether they want to be in R&D or out in a biorefinery,” Moe says.
Experienced chemical engineers considering a move into industrial biotech will need to network to break into the field, Japs notes. He adds that companies that are small, like Genomatica, aren’t interested in hiring “a lot of entry-level engineers. We need people who are experienced and understand the process, because we’re moving very quickly.”
“When we’re talking about scaling up a process and making sure the process design is right, and companies like ours are making the decision to deploy millions of dollars to build commercial facilities, it’s very comforting to know that the chemical engineers have industry experience,” Schilling explains. “The key is getting exposure to fermentation,” whether in a biotech company or a chemical company.
In addition to “the intellectual horsepower to contribute to continuous improvement in design ideas and to capture opportunities that they see within the business,” Moe says that “effective communication and teamwork are essential” for process development engineers to succeed in industry. “Because it’s a technical area, it’s very important that they can effectively communicate ideas and potential implementation strategies to the rest of the organization, which may not understand their segment of the business as well.”
Furthermore, “being professional—such as showing up on time—is just as important as where you went to school,” Wu says. “Being responsible, treating everyone with respect, doing what you have committed to do, being able to communicate clearly—these are hugely important” attributes that contribute to career success.
While these “soft skills” might not be taught in school and might not come naturally to some engineers, they’re “easier to learn than quantum mechanics,” Wu says. “If you can double your salary just by being able to communicate, then why not?”
Chemical engineers should be able to work with people with a variety of science backgrounds, Van Dien suggests.
They also need to be comfortable working without complete information and should be aware of what assumptions they can make about a process so they can move ahead with a project, Wu adds. “Being first into market is far more important than delivering a product made by a perfect process,” he says.
Each facet of process development requires a particular temperament. For example, engineers involved in R&D tend to be highly creative, innovative, and entrepreneurial, Moe says. “They are starting with a blank chalkboard monthly, or potentially yearly, where they create new ideas, new opportunities for the business.”
Other positions attract people with different skills. For instance, Wu’s department at Bayer HealthCare includes some bachelor’s-level chemical engineers who operate reactors and optimize operating conditions. This work “requires people who are very careful, responsible, and dedicated, who have common sense and understand simple chemistry, basic biology, and engineering fundamentals,” he says.
Other chemical engineers at the company are devising ways to bring a process to the commercial manufacturing stage or to improve an existing process. They might need to work out how to consistently deliver clean buffers to a purification process by combining sound engineering design, careful fabrication, and thorough testing. Such engineering challenges could take years to resolve. “Some people might find this very boring,” Wu admits. But “some people might find it very interesting. Our company is full of these challenges, and many dedicated and talented engineers are working on them.” Those who are willing to do so, he says, “will always be employed.”
Both the process used in making a product and the product itself shape the attitude of chemical engineers toward their companies. “Due to the unique nature of Genomatica and the things we’re trying to do—developing innovative technology that is not only good for us economically, but also has positive social benefits for reduced CO2 emissions and other greenhouse gases—we get a lot of people that have a desire to be in this type of industry,” Japs says. “I would say that the desire to be in this field is probably greater than some of the other traditional chemical engineering jobs.
“We definitely see a strong interest when new positions come open within Genomatica,” he adds. “What we’re doing is exciting not only from a chemical engineering perspective, and very challenging, but it’s also something that we feel good about, because it benefits the world.”
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