Interested in a
Career in Biofuels?
Employment in the biofuels industry, “green collar jobs,” is increasing despite
the sluggish U.S. economy. The U.S. Bureau
of Labor Statistics, a unit of the federal
government, forecasts the growth rate of
the biodiesel industry at 31% between 2010
There is plenty of room for production
growth — and employment growth — but
only if chemists and engineers can improve
production economics. A recent economic
study conducted by Cardno ENTRIX, an
environmental and natural resource management consulting firm, estimates that
2011 biofuel production supported 31,000
jobs, generating at least $3 billion in gross
domestic product and $628 million in federal, state, and local tax revenues.
Possible chemistry career options could
be in R&D to improve fuel performance in
high-performance biofuel applications in
passenger jets, military jets, helicopters,
naval vessels, and racing cars, and in less
performance-critical fuels such as diesel
truck fuel. Chemistry professionals in several fields of chemistry are participating
in this research: analytical, physical, bio-,
organic, and catalyst chemists, as well as
chemical engineers. There are also production jobs. Currently these are primarily in
ethanol plants producing this fuel from
corn, which is then blended with gasoline.
However, the most rapidly growing sector
of the biofuels business is producing biofuels from fats or algae, the so-called second-generation biofuels.
Another world of employment opportunities is related to commercial production.
How can the yield of useful feedstocks from
algae and raw materials such as chicken
fat and non-food crops be increased? Can
we find as-yet-undiscovered biofuel feedstocks? Can biofuel feedstocks be expanded
to include sewage sludge? All of these
questions need to be answered to improve
biofuel economics. As pilot plants and
commercial-scale production facilities are
built, there will be career opportunities for
process chemists, engineers, and quality
Fundamental research is also being
performed to better understand the combustion of biofuels. For example, Sandia
National Laboratory’s Nils Hansen and
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Charles Westbrook,
in collaboration with international researchers, are
using a combination of laser
spectroscopy, mass spectrometry, and flame chemistry modeling to study
and oxidation mechanisms and emissions
While a chemistry or chemical
often is enough to
get you hired, many
experience in a related field in the chemical and energy industries. In addition to
laboratory positions, there is also a need for
individuals with management experience to
oversee projects and biofuel plants.
interested in developing biofuels. Recent
and new start-up companies are the
best known. The newest ones are often
housed in university technology incubators
designed to help newly established compa-
nies get started.
A variety of national laboratories and
other government laboratories have bio-
fuels development programs. These
include Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Idaho National Labora- tory, the National Renew- able Energy Laboratory, and the Department of Energy Bioen- ergy Research Center. The Depart- ment of Defense operates laboratories uch as the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station that have positions for civilian chemical researchers.
There are many types of potential employers for chemists and chemical engineers
Returning to the private sector, several oil
companies such as Royal Dutch Shell and BP
have biofuels development programs, often
through joint ventures with small bioenergy
companies or at research institutes they
have established on university campuses.
Today chemists work in conventional fuel
applications such as developing corrosion
inhibitors and viscosity improvers. The same
sorts of studies would need to be performed
for biodiesel, usually through established
firms in these technology fields.
Syntroleum Corporation and Tyson Foods, Inc., supplied this
product for the Navy tests. This biodiesel fuel is produced using
Syntroleum’s proprietary Bio-Synfining product upgrading
The first commercial application is in a plant in Geismar, LA.
Using fats and oils feedstock from Tyson and used cooking oil,
coupled with Bio-Synfining technology, the plant is designed to
produce 75 million gallons per year of ultra-clean and high-per-fornamce renewable synthetic fuels. The first facility of its kind in
the United States, it began commercial operations in November
2010. The fuel meets strict industry standards, including higher
cetane levels with near-zero sulfur and superior stability, and can
be blended with petroleum-derived diesel to help it achieve superior environmental and performance characteristics.
The results of these and earlier tests meant the Navy could
proceed with the next step in its program: testing of biofuel in
the severe operating conditions of a monthlong naval exercise
near Hawaii called RIMPAC.
Four of the 42 ships involved in the exercise were designated
“The Green Strike Force.” The group included the aircraft carrier
USS Nimitz, which is nuclear-powered — although its various
types of aircraft were all operated on biofuel. The Navy spent
$12 million for 450,000 gallons of biofuel blend for the RIMPAC
tests — fuel that, at $26 per gallon, is still very expensive. However, as Navy Secretary Mabus notes, “This is still R&D. As the
market develops, you will see the cost come down.” In fact, this
price was already 94% cheaper than what the Navy had paid for
biofuel just three years earlier.
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