Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Green Job Series: Careers in Biofuels [Second Installment]

The biofuels industry employs a wide range of workers in a variety of occupations. This installment of The Daily Leap's green job series profiles engineering occupations in the biofuels industry.

Engineering Occupations

In the biofuels industry, many engineers are involved in much of the same work as scientists, evaluating both existing and potential feedstocks, and examining which sources provide the best energy at a reasonable cost. However, they also may work on processing facility design and be familiar with industrial equipment.

Job Duties

Agricultural engineers study existing and potential feedstocks to determine which plants can be best used to produce fuel. They must consider the best time of year for various feedstocks to be grown and the best location to cultivate them, as well as the waste products that will be generated in their production.

Chemical engineers design plant equipment and establish various processes and protocols for manufacturing biofuels as well as the chemicals that are used to convert raw materials into fuel.

Chemical engineers and biochemical engineers often work together in a biofuel production facility. For instance, biochemical engineers develop and implement a fermentation process for production of ethanol from sugars, and chemical engineers distill and purify the compound.

Civil engineers design and supervise the construction of biofuel processing plants. When designing a plant, they consider a number of factors, including costs, government regulations, potential environmental hazards, and proximity to feedstocks. They may need to retrofit an existing petroleum plant or convert a biofuel plant so that it can process additional types of feedstocks.

Electrical engineers may work with various motors, power generation equipment, lighting, or any electrical controls for industrial equipment that are needed for a biofuel plant to run.

Environmental engineers work to improve waste treatments and water systems, and to find ways to limit emissions from fuel processing. For instance, an environmental engineer may work to minimize the natural gases that are released while burning materials at a biofuel plant, thereby preventing or reducing the degradation of the atmosphere or local soil and water systems.

Industrial engineers may work to determine the most efficient way to use workers, machines, materials, information, and energy to make biofuels using a given feedstock or chemical process.

Mechanical engineers research, design, develop, build, and test mechanical devices, including tools, engines, and machines used in a processing plant. They may work on developing precursor equipment that can begin the process of breaking feedstocks down into sugar before they are transported to a processing plant.

Education and Licensing

Engineering jobs typically require a bachelor's degree in a related engineering field. However, some jobs, particularly those involved in research and development or those at the managerial level may require advanced degrees or work experience. Many engineer jobs also require a professional engineer (PE) license, which requires a degree, work experience, and passing written exams. Civil engineers who exercise direct control of a project or those who supervise other engineers must have a license.


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
Agricultural engineers $74,630
Chemical engineers $96,870
Civil engineers $96,370
Electrical engineers $85,350
Environmental engineers $89,070
Industrial engineers $79,530
Mechanical engineers $88,320

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

Next week’s biofuels industry series installment: Construction Occupations.

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