Many prospective students struggle to tell the various engineering disciplines apart. With so much overlap and interdisciplinary work happening within each branch, the definitions for each profession can be a little confusing at times.
On this page, we explore the difference between biological and chemical engineering, two of the most commonly confused engineering branches. We aim to help students effectively compare chemical vs. biological engineering by examining how the duties and skills required for each type of engineering differs. We also look at the job requirements and career data for each.
What do biological engineers do?
A biological engineer applies engineering principles to solve problems for biological systems. Sometimes called bioengineers, these professionals work closely with the medical field, designing improved medical instrumentation, equipment, biomaterials, and rehabilitation devices. In addition to the standard math and sciences, these engineers may need skills in computer programming, circuit design, fluid and solid mechanics, and biomaterials.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), biological engineers work in medical equipment manufacturing, life sciences research and development, healthcare, instruments manufacturing, and education. They also design microscopic systems for waste management, study the biological effects of environmental changes, and create genetically engineered agricultural products.
What do chemical engineers do?
Chemical engineers apply their knowledge of chemicals and chemical processes to create new and improved products and solutions. They create equipment, drugs, and food, along with developing processes and regulations for manufacturing, health, and safety. The skills required in this field vary, but most need the ability to separate and mix chemicals safely, use computer-aided design software, and convert and modify materials.
According to the BLS, these professionals work in life sciences research and development, petroleum and coal products manufacturing, wholesale trade, and pharmaceutical manufacturing. They can also specialize in certain chemical processes. Others may work in the nanomaterials, electronics, and food industries.
Both chemical and biological engineers must study and research problems and needs, using computer simulations and lab tests. They then plan, design, and create their solutions, working with other engineers, scientists, and manufacturing professionals in the process. These engineers also prepare papers and reports based on the findings of their studies and products.
Comparing biological engineers and chemical engineers
To best explain the difference between biological and chemical engineering, we highlight various features of the two branches to see how they compare. Below, we look at the education requirements, salary expectations, and projected job growth for each.
According to the BLS, biological engineers typically possess a bachelor's degree in biological engineering or another biology-related degree. Candidates can also study another engineering track, such as chemical or mechanical engineering, if they also take courses in life sciences courses, such as biological systems and materials.
Bachelor's graduates develop practical experience through their laboratory work and internships. Aspiring engineering leaders likely need additional experience and training, such as a master's degree.
According to the BLS, most chemical engineers have a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering or a chemistry-related degree. In such a broad field, aspiring chemical engineers often specialize their studies, such as in-process systems, materials manufacturing, and water and energy technologies.
Even entry-level chemical engineers may need practical experience, which they can acquire through supervised lab work, internships, and cooperative programs. Leadership positions usually need more significant professional experience and a master's degree.
According to the BLS, the median annual salary for biological engineers was $92,620 in May 2020. The top 10% of earners in the field made over $149,440, and the lowest 10% earned $56,590.
Within the top industries employing biological engineers, these professionals made the following median annual wages in May 2020: $97,800 in medical equipment manufacturing, $104,010 in scientific research, and $98,610 in pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing.
According to the BLS, the median annual salary for chemical engineers was $108,540 in May 2020. The top 10% of earners in the field made over $168,960, and the lowest 10% made $68,430.
In the industries with the largest chemical engineering workforces, engineers made the following median annual wages in May 2020: $118,440 in chemical manufacturing, $120,600 in engineering services, and $114,580 in scientific research.
Job growth and employment demand
The BLS projects 6% growth for biological engineering occupations between 2020 and 2030. The combination of technological advancements and an aging population have inspired engineers to develop new and improved biomedical devices and health solutions for the healthcare industry.
Developments in simulation software and three-dimensional printing have increased the effectiveness of biomedical engineers, and growing public awareness will continue to drive demand for their services.
The BLS projects 9% growth for chemical engineering occupations between 2020 and 2030. Increased production demands in many manufacturing industries have led to the bulk of this demand.
Additionally, a growing need for chemical engineers in the environmental, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and alternative energy fields has given engineers more employment opportunities.
Next steps on the career ladder
Biological and chemical engineers can advance their careers in several ways. With experience, these professionals can progress through the ranks into senior and management positions. They can also pursue an advanced degree, professional licensure, or develop their professional research experience to help earn a team leadership role.
Other options include publishing new and innovative scholarly work and positioning themselves as thought leaders in the industry. They might also join a professional organization to network and gain peer support.
Which is right for me: biological engineering or chemical engineering?
When choosing between biological engineering and chemical engineering, you need to think about how your interests will be met within each field. Both of these engineering branches require interests and skills in math, science, and problem-solving. However, they emphasize different scientific branches.
You should also consider your career goals. Chemical engineers focus on chemical processes and manufacturing, whereas biological engineers focus on biological systems and healthcare. Despite the differences between biological and chemical engineering, engineers may work in both fields, particularly when working with biotechnology and the medical industry.
While these two fields feature similarities, there are considerable differences between biological and chemical engineering. On this page, we compared the respective job duties, job requirements, salary expectations, and growth potential of each role. By understanding these differences, you can better align your own personal interests and career goals with the biology jobs and chemistry jobs you want.