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Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology


1945 - 1959

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

The first Shell Professor was T.R.C. Fox, appointed in 1946, and shown here with his team in the first department photograph. The undergraduate Tripos course began in 1948. This was a highly innovative course in that the teaching was science-based, rather than technology-based.

An important innovation was to recruit staff who knew little or nothing about Chemical Engineering, but had a good background in Science or Engineering. Students read either Natural Sciences (the majority) or 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.

Professor Fox never published a research paper, but he encouraged research. For example:

  1. The Hydrogen-Oxygen Fuel Cell (F.T. Bacon FRS), which eventually went to the moon.
  2. Pioneering work by P. V. Danckwerts on residence time distributions, gas absorption and mixing.
  3. Distillation of liquid hydrogen for tritium separation, relevant to the hydrogen bomb.
  4. Early work on fluidisation, starting with Tripos research projects.

None of the above had any funding from Research Councils, though there was industrial funding for projects (i) and (iii).

1959 - 1975

The Shell Department of Chemical Engineering, Nature Vol 185, No 4709, pp 287-288, January 30, 1960

The next Head of Department was Professor P. V. Danckwerts (1959 – 1975). During his tenure, relations with IChemE improved and Professor 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, into the Natural Sciences Tripos Part IB. This Tripos includes a wide range of scientific subjects, so the addition of a Chemical Engineering topic was notable.

The Department was early in introducing computers: an IBM 1620 machine was bought with Shell funds (available because the Department had not purchased large teaching equipment, a wise decision of Professor Fox). Thus the Department was early in research on computational flow-sheeting and on computer-controlled experiments.

Dr Davidson, then a Reader, was President of IChemE 1970–71. In 1974 he was a member of the Court of Inquiry for the Flixborough Disaster, in which twenty-eight were killed and a large factory was destroyed.

1975 – 1993

Professor Davidson with HRH Prince Philip, Duke of EdinburghProfessor J F Davidson became Shell Professor and Head of department in 1975 and held the post until 1993.
Biotechnology was launched in the 1980’s, first by Dr Chase and Dr Slater in the Department and then by the arrival of Dr Lowe who started the Institute of Biotechnology. At first the Institute was attached to the Department, but after a few years it became a separate establishment and remained so for many years.

Likewise the Department assisted with initiating a Polymer Chemistry Group in the late 1980’s: this Group was fostered as a joint venture by the Departments of Physics, Materials Science and Metallurgy and Chemical Engineering, but later moved to the Department of Chemistry.

The MEng (Master of Engineering), a new degree for the University, was introduced in 1990; in this the Department was the leader. All students completing the four year course are eligible for MEng. This lead has been followed by a number of other departments who have adopted the MEng or similar title for students completing a four year course.

1993 – 1998

On Professor Davidson's retirement in 1993, Professor J. Bridgwater took over.
A major change was the introduction of the three year Chemical Engineering course. Students enter the University to read Natural Sciences or Engineering. After one year, they transfer to Chemical Engineering for the three year course:

  1. Year 2 leads to the Chemical Engineering Tripos (CET) Part I
  2. Year 3 leads to CET Part IIA, including the Design Project
  3. Year 4 leads to CET Part IIB, including the Research Project

An important administrative change was the introduction of the School of Technology comprising, as well as this Department, initially the Departments of Engineering and of Computer Science, the Judge Business School and the Institute of Biotechnology. In 1998, the Shell Fund was returned to the Department for the Department’s sole use.
Professor Bridgwater was President of the IChemE, 1997–98.

1998 – present

In 1998, the position of Head of Department became fixed term.

Professor H A Chase (1998 – 2006)
An important innovation was the introduction of the MPhil course in Advanced Chemical Engineering comprising a six month course of advanced study plus a six-month research project requiring a dissertation plus an oral examination. The first course began in October 2004, but plans were laid earlier.

Professor L. F. Gladden (2006 – 2010)
During this period the Department was reamalgamated with the Institute of Biotechnology which had grown substantially since its inception. Thus was formed the present Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, which obtained the highest possible rating in the last Research Assessment Exercise.
Professor Gladden founded the MRI centre and she also pioneered the CEB new building initiative.

The Department now includes three buildings:

  1. The original premises in Pembroke Street
  2. The Institute of Biotechnology in Tennis Court Road
  3. The Magnetic Resonance Research Centre on the West Cambridge Site. This building houses a group working on magnetic resonance imaging applied to Chemical Engineering, a National Centre for the UK, under the leadership of Professor Gladden.

Professor N. K. H. Slater (2010 – 2015)
Professor Nigel Slater took over from Professor Lynn Gladden in October 2010 and continued the pursuit of the vision Professor Gladden championed for the Department to be fully integrated within a single new building that meets the educational needs of our current and future students. In 2008, as the department's Director of Research, Professor Slater had led the Department to top its Unit of Assessment in RAE2008, and when Head of Department in 2014, the Department again topped its UoA in REF2014. Professor Slater secured capital expenditure for our new building from the University, oversaw the building development until near completion in 2015 and raised around £4 million in contributions to the building from the Wolfson and Garfield Weston Foundations. He also secured the MedImmune/AstraZeneca-funded Beacon project that provided £5 million for leading healthcare research by our academics over five years.

Professor J. S. Dennis (2015 - 2018)
Undergraduate teaching moved to the new building on the West Cambridge site in October 2016 and during the course of that academic year (2016-17) research also moved.
Professor Dennis became Head of the School of Technology on 1 December 2018.

Professor Lisa Hall (2018 - 2020)
Professor Hall was previously Deputy Head of Department (Research) and agreed to act as the interim Head of Department following Professor Dennis's appointment to Head of the School of Technology.