Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Green Job Series: Careers in Biofuels [First Installment]

The United States has increasingly sought ways to develop alternative fuels, such as biofuels. Biofuels are defined as fuels composed of or produced from biological raw materials. Biofuels can reduce the use of oil-based fuels and the release of greenhouse gas emissions.

The biofuels industry provides career opportunities for a vast array of workers, who do such tasks as developing biofuel technologies, growing crops, and processing and selling the fuels. This installment of The Daily Leap's green job series profiles science occupations in the biofuels industry.

Science Occupations

Scientists work to find the best, most cost-effective way of turning feedstocks into fuel. They often work for a wide variety of organizations, such as colleges, private and nonprofit companies, and government agencies. Scientists generally work in offices or laboratories, though some may work in a production plant.

Job Duties

Biochemists and biophysicists study the chemical and physical principles of living things and biological processes. Those who work in alternative fuels may research various technologies that can be used to break down feedstocks into fuel.

Chemists study the properties, structures, compositions, and reactions of matter. They study various chemical processes that can be used to more efficiently produce biofuels. Chemists blend various compounds to see what inputs yield the best quality blends of fuel at a reasonable cost. Based on their findings, they develop new protocols for blending fuels to ensure quality control.

Microbiologists study the growth, structure, development, and characteristics of microscopic organisms, such as bacteria, algae, or plant cells. They may use their knowledge of various forms of bacteria to improve the fermentation process used to make ethanol or to develop new ways of cultivating algae to use as a feedstock.

Soil and plant scientists conduct research on soil, crops, and other agricultural products to find new and improved ways to use various agricultural products for fuel. A plant scientist may test several types of perennial grasses to see which can be most efficiently broken down into simple sugars. Plant scientists also work to improve crop yields by using techniques that could enhance feedstock production efforts.


Most scientist positions require a bachelor's degree from a program that includes both coursework and laboratory hours. A scientist who is leading a research team or conducting independent research may need a master's or doctoral degree to do so. Biochemists and biophysicists typically need a doctoral degree to enter the occupation.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) currently does not have wage data specific to the biofuels industry. However, BLS does have wage data for the basic chemical manufacturing industry group; the following table shows wages for selected science occupations in that industry group for May 2011. The wages shown are median annual wages for the United States as a whole; wages vary by employer and location.

Occupation Median annual wage
Biochemists and biophysicists $63,530
Chemists $75,550
Microbiologists $57,350
Soil and plant scientists $58,940

For more detailed information on science occupations in the biofuels industry, click the Occupational Outlook Handbook link.

Next week's biofuels industry series installment: Engineering Occupations.

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