Education

The chemistry of engineering

scientific molecular frame with copy space

scientific molecular frame with copy space  

With many branches of engineering stemming either directly or indirectly from chemistry, AICTE’s move to remove the subject as a core requirement for admission sends a confusing message

All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) has not mandated chemistry as a subject of study in higher secondary course (HSC) for pursuing undergraduate engineering/technology programmes in the country. As per AICTE’s ‘Approval Process Handbook 2020 - 21’, the candidates are required to have studied mathematics and physics only, compulsorily and, as an optional subject, any one of chemistry, biotechnology, biology, computer science, IT, information practices, agriculture, engineering graphics, business studies and technical vocational subject.

It is true that more importance is given to physics in engineering, and to chemistry in medicine. For instance, in breaking the tie between candidates that arises in ranking for counselling, priority is given to marks in physics for engineering, and to marks in chemistry for medicine.

Relevance

However, chemistry is not irrelevant to engineering. Undermining chemistry’s importance in engineering is not of recent origin. Fifteen years ago, chemistry was made a one-semester subject for BE/BTech programmes, offered only in the first semester of the first year. Consequently, in many self-financing colleges in Tamil Nadu, chemistry departments were operated only in the odd semesters and were closed down, retrenching the services of the staff, in the even semesters. For this reason and for the reason of its own importance, subsequently, chemistry was restored for the first two semesters.

If the concept that chemistry is not required for engineering gains acceptance, then chemistry need not be taught in engineering colleges; the department can be closed. The states where entrance exams are conducted for engineering admission cannot examine candidates in chemistry, since all the candidates would not have studied chemistry. National level exams such as JEE(Main) and JEE(Advanced), meant for admission in IITs, NITs, IIITs and other willing institutions may have to change their pattern of question papers. In Tamil Nadu, the rank list prepared for counselling for admission in engineering can use only the marks in two subjects, namely, mathematics and physics. This will result in more candidates being ‘tied’ (with the same total ranking marks). Any suggestions to also consider the marks in the optional subject may be resented because of the differences in their difficulty and content levels.

Most of the engineering subjects are based on physical sciences which comprises both physics and chemistry. These two subjects are complementary, with many overlapping concepts, such as entropy, enthalpy and so on.

Core influence

While many branches of engineering directly stem up from chemistry, many others belonging to the core areas like civil and mechanical engineering depend on it in a diffused way. Concrete/mortar admixtures and additives, corrosion prevention, hydrophobics, tunnelling/mining, resins, sealing/bonding, emulsion and water proofing are some areas in civil engineering which borrow heavily from chemistry. Refrigerants, lubricants, metal extraction and processes, aviation fuels, exhaust products and polymer composites are examples in mechanical engineering and its constituent areas such as aeronautical engineering and naval architecture. Design and manufacture of electronic components such as transistors, resistors, capacitors, batteries, oscilloscopes, high precision sensors, lasers, polymer insulation and areas of wafer engineering, VLSI and physical electronics are samples from electrical/ electronics engineering. According to R. Padyala, a senior scientist, “Chemistry is very important... because it is based on the most fundamental law of nature — the law of stoichiometry.”

For these reasons, among the freshers in engineering colleges, those who have not studied chemistry as a subject in higher secondary course may lag behind those who have studied it. This may only further reduce the charm of engineering which is already in the decline. It may be noted that the basic subject of Nobel laureate Venkataraman Ramakrishnan who hails from Tamil Nadu, was Chemistry. Following AICTE, the Medical Council of India may delete physics and make only biology and chemistry as compulsory subjects in HSC as a qualifying condition for MBBS programme.

This move by AICTE could be reconsidered. Chemistry is everywhere in our everyday life — in foods we eat, air we breath, the way we cleanse our dirt, preserve our stuff, protect the environs and even experience emotions of love, hate, compassion and desire. Engineering/technology being a study concerned with betterment of living conditions of humans cannot, therefore, be learnt properly without the basic study of chemistry as a prerequisite.

Branches of engineering/technology that are directly based on chemistry:

1. Chemical Engineering/Technology

2. Chemical and Electrochemical Engineering

3. Ceramic Engineering

4. Petroleum Engineering

5. Petrochemical Engineering

6. Polymer Technology

7. Plastic/Rubber Technology

8. Textile Technology

9. Textile Chemistry

10. Carpet and Textile Technology

11. Fashion Technology

12. Metallurgical Engineering

13. Metallurgical and Materials Engineering

14. Pulp and Paper Technology

15. Biotechnology

16. Biochemical Engineering

17. Biomedical Engineering

18. Medical Technology

19. Food Technology

20. Leather Technology

The writer is former professor and director Entrance Exams and Admission, Anna University, Chennai.

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 3:23:50 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/education/the-chemistry-of-engineering/article31007440.ece

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