Our History

Throughout its history, the Department has pursued excellence in teaching and research, with an emphasis on an understanding of the scientific principles that underpin the discipline. 

Early, temporary, facilities of the first Chemical Engineering department.

Early, temporary, facilities of the first Chemical Engineering department.

Key dates

History of CEB

Key dates in the history of our Department as we know it today:

  • 1946: formation of the Department of Chemical Engineering
  • 1984/1988: formation of the Biotechnology Centre which became the Institute of Biotechnology
  • 2008: merger of the above two bodies to form the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology (CEB)

Throughout its history, the Department has pursued excellence in teaching and research, with an emphasis on an understanding of the scientific principles that underpin the discipline. 

Chemical Engineering: 1946-1959

In 1945, the University received an endowment from Shell to set up a chemical engineering department and chair.

The first Shell Professor and Head of Department was Terence Fox, appointed in 1946. He was a Cambridge engineering graduate who had had four years work experience at ICI in Billingham. Fox was an intellectually brilliant but shy and nervous individual, who concentrated on teaching and administration rather than research.

Professor Terence Fox

Prof Terence Fox

Prof Terence Fox

He had one tricky initial task - to make the chemical engineering discipline academically respectable to some in the University who, at the time, did not think that the Cambridge degree should be vocational. Prof Fox was happy to recruit staff who knew little or nothing about chemical engineering, but had a good background in science or engineering and a willingness to learn. Initially the course was delivered by Fox and just four academic staff (Kay, Sellers, Denbigh, Danckwerts)

Prof Terence Fox developed the first University of Cambridge undergraduate course in Chemical Engineering, beginning in 1948, insisting that fundamental scientific principles should be taught as essential background to chemical engineering operations.

Early Structure of the Chemical Engineering course

Students read either Natural Sciences or Mechanical Sciences (later renamed Engineering) for their first two years and then entered the Department for a two-year course in Chemical Engineering. There were no large teaching experiments, unusual in those days, and there was no Design Project, much to the distress of the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE). In their final year, students did a research project, innovative at the time, and an industrial report on a specific process.

The Department soon built a reputation for excellence in its teaching and assessment. One student - Jim Wilkes, who later went on to a successful career as an academic in America - commented that the only reason that he switched from the Natural Sciences course to Chemical Engineering was the quality of the past examination papers that he inspected in his College library.

Gradually the number of students and staff increased. Selected highlights of Department work in this period were:

  • The alkaline hydrogen-oxygen fuel cell which was developed by Francis T. Bacon and used by NASA in the Apollo moon landing missions.
  • Pioneering work by Peter Danckwerts on residence time distributions, gas absorption and mixing. For instance his paper on continuous flow systems published in Chemical Engineering Science Vol 2, 1-13, 1953 remains seminal to the discipline.
  • Influential textbooks by Kenneth Denbigh "The principles of chemical equilibrium" (first published 1955) and John Kay on "An introduction to Fluid Mechanics and Heat Transfer" (first published in 1957). Both were updated, the latter with Ron Nedderman, and remained in print for several decades.

Early Facilities

Up until 1959 the Department occupied temporary buildings off Tennis Court Road, Cambridge


In 1958, the Department moved to a new building on the New Museums site, designed in part by Terence Fox himself. A description of the new building - known as the Shell Department of Chemical Engineering - can be found in Nature Vol 185, No 4709, pp 287-288, January 30, 1960.

Chemical Engineering: 1959-1975

Peter Danckwerts was Shell Professor and Head of Department from 1959 – 1975, taking over just after the move of the Department to the New Museums Site / Pembroke Street.

Danckwerts was a war hero who had been awarded the George Cross in 1940 for defusing land mines dropped on London in World War II. He had served as a lecturer in the Department when it was founded, and then worked for the UK Atomic Energy Authority and Imperial College London before returning to Cambridge to take up the Shell Chair. In research he made seminal contributions to reaction engineering, gas absorption and mixing. He travelled widely and was known throughout the world. He was appointed a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1969. A biography entitled Life on the Edge: Peter Danckwerts - brave, shy, brilliant was written by Peter Varey and published in 2012.

The Department was early in introducing computers. In 1960, an IBM 1620 machine was bought with Shell endowment funds. Thus the Department was early in research on computational flowsheeting and on computer-controlled experiments. 

During Danckwerts' tenure, relations with the IChemE improved and Danckwerts became its President 1965-6. A design project was introduced which became part of the course for every student's third year at the University. In 1967, the Department introduced its own subject, Fluid Mechanics and Transfer Processes, as an option within the second year of the Natural Sciences Tripos. This served as a useful advertisement of the chemical engineering course to science students who might not otherwise give it attention.

Notable research in this period was by John Davidson on fluidisation, resulting in a famous monograph with David Harrison entitled Fluidised Particles in 1963. 

Two other people who were key to the Department are worth mentioning. One was Denys Armstrong, a lecturer from 1952-85, who directed the teaching and managed the departmental accounts. After his death in 2006, he set up the W.D. Armstrong Fund for PhD studentships at Cambridge linking Engineering and Medicine. The other key individual was Margaret Sansom, the department secretary, who in the words of one academic "held it all together" over several decades. 

After his retirement, Danckwerts remained an influential figure as executive editor of the journal Chemical Engineering Science.

Prof Peter Danckwerts

Prof Peter Danckwerts

Chemical Engineering: 1975-1992

John Davidson and HRR The Duke of Edinburgh

John Davidson and HRR The Duke of Edinburgh

John Davidson became Shell Professor and Head of Department in 1975 and held the post until 1993. The image is of him with the Duke of Edinburgh in the unit operations lab of the department in 1983.

Davidson had been an academic within the Department since 1952 and had an international reputation for his pioneering research on understanding fluidisation and two-phase flow phenomena. Always modest, he attributed his early success to final-year undergraduate research projects. 

Davidson was President of IChemE 1970–71. In 1974 he was a member of the Court of Inquiry for the Flixborough Disaster, in which 28 people died. He was appointed a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1974, and was awarded a Royal Medal in 1999. Even after he retired, he remained an active member of the Department until his death in 2019 - some 67 years after he first joined it.

Davidson was a prominent part of an early University initiative to promote biotechnology around 1980. This led to the appointment of two academics (Howard Chase and Nigel Slater) to the Department who had interest in biochemical engineering. Further initiatives resulted in the appointment of Chris Lowe to start a Biotechnology Centre in 1984. This developed into the Institute of Biotechnology in 1988 as an independent body until it merged with Chemical Engineering in 2008.

Likewise the Department assisted with initiating a Polymer Chemistry Group in the late 1980s: this group was fostered as a joint venture by several Departments, and became the Melville Laboratory of Polymer Synthesis within the Department of Chemistry.

The number of students reading Chemical Engineering increased significantly during Davidson's tenure as Head of Department. 


Chemical Engineering: 1994-2006

John Bridgwater (HoD: 1993-1998)

John Bridgwater was appointed Shell Professor and Head of Department when John Davidson retired in 1993. Bridgwater's inaugural lecture was entitled "Fifty Years Young: product and processes - the future of chemical engineering" and was published by Cambridge University Press.
Bridgwater was a graduate of the department with industrial experience at Courtaulds. He had been a lecturer in Cambridge in the 1970s, and a Professor at the University of Birmingham in the 1980s. His research was on particle science, including flow of particles and pastes. He was President of the IChemE in1997–98.

There was significant growth of the Department in this period in terms of number of academic staff and number of students. One major change was to the undergraduate course structure. From 1997, the course became a single year of Natural Sciences or (general) Engineering, followed by three further years in the Department (rather than the 2+2 system that had existed before then).

An important administrative change in this period was the introduction of the School of Technology. This handled financial allocations from the University to technology departments (Chemical Engineering, Biotechnology, Engineering, Computer Science, Judge Business School).

The name of the Department building changed, losing the first word of "Shell Department of Chemical Engineering".

Regulations were changed so that the Shell Professor was not automatically Head of Department until retirement. Instead, Heads of Department would normally serve for five year periods. As a result, John Bridgwater stood down as Head of Department in 1998, but retained his position as Shell Professor of Chemical Engineering until 2004 when he retired; the latter post was taken up by Lynn Gladden.

Howard Chase (HoD: 1998 – 2006)

Howard Chase with the Duke of Edinburgh

Howard Chase took over as Head of Department, and served for two consecutive periods totalling eight years. The picture is of him with the Duke of Edinburgh in 1997 (just before he became Head).

Chase was a biochemist by training who joined the Department, initially as a Research Fellow, in 1978. His research area was bioseparations technology, for instance chromatography in expanded bed adsorption columns.

There was a significant refurbishment of the laboratories for chemical and biochemical preparations in 2002, including set-up of a lab entitled Cambridge Unit for Bioscience Engineering (CUBE) that included enhanced facilities for biological work.

An important innovation in this period was the introduction of the MPhil course in Advanced Chemical Engineering, comprising a period of advanced study followed by an individual research project requiring a dissertation. The first course began in October 2004.

An example of research in this period that gained significant publicity was Malcolm Mackley's work on flexible chocolate which was formed by room temperature extrusion.


John Bridgwater

John Bridgwater

Howard Chase and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh

Howard Chase and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh

Biotechnology 1984-2008

The Biotechnology Centre was founded in 1984 under the Directorship of Chris Lowe as a centre of excellence in biotechnology research based "in a hut on the Downing site". In 1988 it became established as the Institute of Biotechnology within the University. It moved to a new building in Tennis Court Road in 1991 with five academic staff. Following the mantra 'concept to exploitation' it developed an enviable reputation for research-based entrepreneurial activity, with many patents and several spin-out companies forming. 

The Institute of Biotechnology was awarded a Queen's Award for Technological Achievement in 1996.

In 2002 an innovative taught MPhil course in Bioscience Enterprise was set up, bridging bioscience and business, intended for those who have an interest in enterprise and an entrepreneurial ambition to set up technology companies, or take up leadership, executive or consultancy roles in the life sciences sector.

In 2006, Lowe was named the "Most Entrepreneurial Scientist in the UK" in a competition organised by the UK Science Enterprise Centres (UKSEC).

In 2007, the Institute was awarded a Queen's Anniversary Prize - these are granted to Universities by the Queen in recognition of excellence, innovation and public benefit through education and training.

Examples of research conducted within the Institute of Biotechnology were:
•    Development of holograms that are chemically, biologically and physically sensitive
•    Identification of biomarkers for psychiatric disorders
•    Development of novel glucose sensors
•    Plant cell cycle studies
•    Affinity substrates enabling purification of high value pharmaceuticals

The Institute of Biotechnology merged with the Department of Chemical Engineering in 2008. This followed a period of discussion in which the long-term sustainability of the Institute was considered, synergies between the two bodies were recognised, and a joint submission to the national Research Assessment Exercise in 2008 was made.

2008: Merger of The Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology

CEB Heads of Department: 2006-present

Dame Lynn Gladden (HoD: 2006 – 2010)

Lynn Gladden succeeded Howard Chase as Head of the Department of Chemical Engineering in 2006.

Gladden was appointed lecturer in the Department in 1987 and was its first female academic. She developed a large research group investigating catalysis and applications of nuclear magnetic resonance. She has an international reputation on using magnetic resonance techniques (MRI and relaxometry) to gain understanding of chemical engineering problems. Gladden was appointed Shell Professor of Chemical Engineering in 2004. She was appointed a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2004. She was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 2020 New Years Honours for services to academic and industrial research in chemical engineering.

Gladden introduced appointments of Deputy Head of Department, realising that the role of Head of Department had expanded over the years. She had two particular visions:
•    to merge with the Institute of Biotechnology. Among other things, this enabled the Department to reach critical mass of activity in certain research areas. It contributed to the Department coming joint top of its Unit of Assessment in the national Research Assessment Exercise of 2008 (RAE2008). 
•    to prepare a new building for the merged department on the West Cambridge site with better infrastructure than the old buildings. 

She resigned her position as Head of the newly formed Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology in 2010 after being appointed as the University's Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research, a position she held until 2016. In 2018 was was appointed Executive Chair of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Nigel Slater (HoD: 2010 – 2015)

Nigel Slater had a chemistry background before becoming a lecturer in the Department in 1979. He then worked in industry (Unilever and Wellcome Biotech) from 1985 in the area of bioprocessing, before being appointed to a Chair in Chemical Engineering in the Department in 2000. His research area was the manufacture and formulation of biopharmaceuticals including therapeutic proteins, DNA, viruses and cells.  

During Slater’s tenure as Head of Department:
•    He played an essential role to turn the vision for a combined institute for the departments of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology into reality. He oversaw the planning and building phases and co-ordinated a substantial fund-raising campaign to enable the construction of the £60M building.
•    The Department topped its unit of assessment (by GPA score) in the national Research Exercise Framework in 2014 (REF2014, UoA 12- aeronautical, mechanical, chemical and manufacturing engineering).
•    A Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Sensors Technology was set up in the Department in 2014 under the directorship of Clemens Kaminski. Students on this programme did a 1-year MRes course followed by 3 years work for PhD degree.

In 2015-16, Slater served as a Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University.

John Dennis (HoD: 2015-2018)

John Dennis had been a student and lecturer (1984-89) in the Department, and then an engineering consultant, before returning to the academic staff in 2002. His research interest is combustion in fluidised beds, particularly for environmental reasons.
Undergraduate teaching moved to the new building on the West Cambridge site in October 2016 and research moved over the course of that academic year. The new building was formally opened by the University Chancellor, Lord Sainsbury, in April 2018.
A new taught MPhil course in Biotechnology was approved and it started in 2018-19.

Dennis relinquished the Head of Department position to become Head of the School of Technology on 1 December 2018.

Lisa Hall (HoD: 2019-2020)

Lisa Hall took over as Head of Department until her retirement two years later. 

She had been a member of the Institute of Biotechnology before the merger. Her research is on analytical biotechnology, particularly on molecular sensors for chemical and biological systems.

During this period, there was a structural reorganisation of the Department, and plans were made to reform the undergraduate course to become Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology to reflect better the interests of academic staff and the likely future direction of process industries.

Clemens Kaminski (HoD: 2020-)

Clemens Kaminski's tenure as Head of Department started in October 2020.

His research is on the development and application of optical imaging methods. Example applications include quantifying the kinetics of reactions in chemical and biological systems, developing chemical sensors, and the microscopy of biological systems for healthcare.

Approval has been given for a new course in Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology for undergraduates from October 2023. From that time undergraduates will start in the Department in year 1 (unlike year 2 in the previous system).

Driven by curiosity. Driving change.