The decision to establish a Faculty of Engineering at the University of Pretoria was taken in 1954 by the University Council, pending approval of the Minister. Approval came in December 1955 and the first students in Mechanical, Civil and Electrotechnical Engineering registered in the newly-established Faculty of Engineering in 1956. The first group of Chemical Engineering students actually registered in 1959 in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, but transferred to the Department of Chemical Engineering as soon as it was formally established in 1960. They completed their studies in 1962.
Prof. Dawie Schoeman was the first Head of Department. When he became Dean of the Faculty of Engineering in 1980, Prof Uys Grimsehl succeeded him and on his retirement as HOD in 2004, Prof Philip de Vaal was appointed as Head of Department.
The annual number of graduates has shown a steady increase from 7 in 1962 to 72 in 2013, with clear indications of sustained growth into the future. About 1 330 Chemical Engineers have graduated in the 52 years that the Department has been delivering graduates to industry.
The number of full-time postgraduate students increased from less than 10 to 78, while total postgraduate students increased from 75 to 263, producing almost 1 000 candidates with postgraduate qualifications in this same time period.
In addition to the Rand Water Chair in Water Utilisation Engineering that existed in the Department from 1970 until the end of 2006, the ERWAT-Chair in Waste Water Management was awarded to Dr Heidi Snyman in 1998. She was succeeded by Prof Japie Schoeman, who was the ERWAT Chair from 2004 to 2013. Two further Chairs were established in the Department, namely the SARChI Chair in Carbon Technology and Materials with Prof Brian Rand as incumbent and the SARChI Chair in Fluoro-materials Science and Process Integration with Prof Philip Crouse as incumbent.
Several alumni of the department achieved notable research achievements. Marius Kloppers, who graduated in 1986, was appointed in 2006 as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of BHP-Billiton. Ralph Havenstein, a graduate of 1977, was executive director of Sasol from 1998 to 2003 and was the Chief Executive Officer of Anglo Platinum from 2003 to 2007. He is currently CEO of Norilsk Nickel International. Renus Kelfkens, also graduated in 1977 and is Senior Vice President: Engineering, Sundrop Fuels, Longmont, Colorado. Henk Viljoen, who graduated in 1979, is currently a Willa Cather Distinguished Professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the USA. Ingmar Boesenberg, is Supply Chain Director: SAB-Miller (Class of 1983).