Chemical engineering emerged as a speciality in the late 19th century. Most New Zealand chemical engineers work in agriculture or forestry, for example in the dairy industry or pulp and paper.
Because the focus in chemical engineering is on managing processes, plant and project managers often have a chemical-engineering background. In the giant dairy company Fonterra, chemical engineers are found in management, plant troubleshooting, process improvement, and process design and development.
Biochemical and manufacturing process engineers work at Taranaki’s natural gas extraction and methanol production plants, in oil refining near Whangārei, aluminium smelting at Tīwai Point, and gold mining in Otago and the Coromandel. Chemical engineers also work in cement manufacture, and the generation of electricity from geothermal steam.
Motunui Synfuel gas-to-gasoline
The Motunui Synfuel gas-to-gasoline plant, built in Taranaki between 1981 and 1985, was designed to reduce New Zealand’s dependence on imported oil after the oil price rises in the 1970s. The plant used an innovative zeolite catalyst system to convert methanol to petrol. The zeolite system used alumina, silica, and temperatures of 300–420˚C to convert the methanol. The zeolite process was developed by Mobil Oil. It had not been used on a large scale before.
The plant was designed by Ministry of Works engineers and overseas contractors. Lower petrol prices made petrol production uneconomical, and Motunui was used solely for methanol production from the late 1990s. In 2004 increased natural gas prices led to the plant’s closure. In 2008 when oil prices rose, the possibility of re-opening the plant was raised.
A 21st-century profession
The Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand (IPENZ) interprets ‘engineering profession’ in the broadest possible way. In 2008 IPENZ had 10,000 members from many specialisations and widely varying educational backgrounds. Civil engineers were joined by other engineers such as cutting edge biotechnological, electronic and software engineers. Military engineers – sappers – belong to the Royal New Zealand Engineers and have been deployed in peace-keeping missions around the world.
Computer and software engineering
In the 1970s computer engineers began to design computer hardware, write computer programs, and integrate computer and other systems.
As computer chips developed, computer engineers designed embedded applications – software written for a particular type of hardware. Embedded applications are found in household appliances, security systems and vehicles.
In the early 2000s engineers worked on embedded applications at companies such as Fisher and Paykel Appliances, Navman and Tait Communications – all three were significant exporters.