Mines News

Release Date Tuesday, July 6, 2021

100 Years of Chemical Engineering at Mines

Chemical engineers are responsible for many things we take for granted today, such as nylon, Kevlar and Teflon; the mass production of antibiotics such as penicillin; and the cracking of hydrocarbon molecules that give us gasoline and jet fuel.

In a sense, chemical engineering began during the Bronze Age, when people made bronze by melting copper with tin. The defining moment in the history of chemical engineering is generally recognized as the Industrial Revolution.

South Dakota Mines was founded in 1885, during the Second Industrial Revolution (1870-1914). Mines experienced notable growth between 1915 and 1922: enrollment increased from 30 to 180 students. The Department of Chemical Engineering was established in 1921 with a lone faculty member: Andrew Karsten. Although Karsten worked closely with two chemistry faculty members, he was the sole chemical engineering faculty member for almost 20 years. He remained at Mines for a total of 38 years.

In 1923, the first three chemical engineering graduates – two women and one man – received bachelor’s degrees. The department began offering master's degrees in 1935. 

Two more faculty members were hired in the 1950s, and the department became nationally accredited. The original Chemistry and Chemical Engineering Building, which was designed by chemical and mechanical engineering students, was dedicated in 1957.

In the 1970s, biology became part of the department, and three more faculty members were hired. The biochemical engineering emphasis was developed in the 1990s. The department’s PhD program began in 2007.

In 2019 biomedical engineering's BS, MS and PhD programs joined the department. Mines’ biomedical engineering program works in conjunction with its sister program at the University of South Dakota. The BME program then moved under the university's nano science and engineering program on July 1, 2021.

Through the years, the chemical engineering department has worked hand in hand with the chemistry and biology departments. President Charles Ruch restructured all academic departments during his tenure (2003- 2008), resulting in the current Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. The department currently has 10 faculty members and about 180 students.

Chemical engineering students at Mines can choose to specialize in advanced materials (nano materials, polymers, ceramics, materials processing, corrosion, or solid state/semi-conductors), biomedical engineering, energy technology, environmental engineering, or petroleum engineering. A specialization in biochemical engineering is also offered.

Many chemical engineering students are active in the Mines student chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE); the Mines chapter was recognized as one of 15 AIChE outstanding student chapters in the 2007- 2008 academic year.

Chemical engineering graduates have historically been employed at  companies such as Dow Chemical, Chevron, and Exxon, and more recently at LyondellBasell and POET and food industry at companies such as Cargill, ADM and Tate and Lyle. The department’s core research areas include bio- and renewable energy and fuels, biomedical engineering, bioprocessing and biochemical engineering, computer simulation and modeling, molecular biology and biotechnology, nanotechnology, polymers, separations, and thermodynamics.

Research is conducted at the Composite and Polymer Engineering (CAPE) Laboratory on campus, the Sanford Underground Research Facility located at the former Homestake Gold Mine in Lead, and the 2-Dimensional materials Biofilm Engineering, Science and Technology (2D BEST) Center at Mines.

Three notable current research projects led by Mines chemical engineering faculty members have received a total of $32 million in National Science Foundation grants. The largest grant is funding a project which focuses on the environment microbes occupy when they attach to surfaces, creating what is commonly known as a biofilm. This project includes researchers from SDSU and the University of South Dakota.

The second project will form a new collaboration between Mines, USD, Montana State University, and the University of Nebraska at Omaha to collect data and analyze and predict gene responses and biofilm characteristics influenced by surface properties.

The third project, which began in 2017, is researching the life cycle and makeup of microbes found in the depths of the Sanford Underground Research Facility and other extreme environments.

As the field of chemical engineering continues to evolve, the next 100 years will see major advances in renewable energy and materials development, biomedical engineering, biofuels, biochemicals, and access to food and clean water, predicts Robb Winter, PhD, professor of chemical engineering.


About South Dakota Mines  

Founded in 1885, South Dakota Mines is one of the nation’s leading engineering, science and technology universities. South Dakota Mines offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees and a best-in-class education at an affordable price. The university enrolls 2,493 students with an average class size of 24. The South Dakota Mines placement rate for graduates is 98 percent, with an average starting salary of more than $70,036. For these reasons  South Dakota Mines is ranked among the best engineering schools in the country for return on investment. Find us online at www.sdsmt.edu and on FacebookTwitter, LinkedInInstagram, and Snapchat.

Contact: Mike Ray, 605-394-6082, mike.ray@sdsmt.edu