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Petrochemical Engineer


It would be hard to imagine a world without gasoline and petroleum. But what about petroleum derivatives, better known as petrochemicals, like propane? These petrochemicals, discovered by engineers have an overwhelming impact on all of our lives. Petrochemicals are derived from petroleum sources, such as oil and natural gas.

Applying scientific and mathematical principles, petrochemical engineers develop processes like catalytic cracking to break down complex organic molecules found in crude oil into much simpler substances. These building blocks are then separated and recombined to form many useful products including: lubricating oils, plastics, polymers, synthetic rubber and synthetic fibers. Without this petrochemical process, much of modern life would cease to function. Examples of petroleum derivatives are ethylene, polypropylene, benzene, methanol and butane. Polypropylene, for instance, serves as both a plastic and a fiber. In its plastic form, it makes dishwasher-safe containers (ones that will not melt in high heat) and in the fiber form it can produce indoor-outdoor carpeting, such as on mini-golf courses.

Petrochemical engineers are constantly putting their creativity to work, synthesizing new materials, transforming combinations of elements of matter and developing the processes to do it all safely, efficiently and on a large scale. Using petrochemicals, engineers process and package many of the foods we eat, clothes we wear, help power our cars and heat our homes and develop new materials from garbage. Petrochemical engineers are like alchemists; they turn raw materials into valuable products. They usually work with a team of chemists and other scientists.

Petrochemical engineers will often specialize in a particular area once they become established, including biochemistry, the environment or petrochemical refining. Nevertheless, they all perform the same general duties as engineers. They extract existing data and design methods to design products, petroleum energy derivatives and operating specifications for industrial plants. They take into account cost, safety and environmental concerns when conducting research and performing experiments. Petrochemical engineers working in plants must ensure that the equipment is operating efficiently, safely, according to environmental regulations and that the desired quantity and quality of product is produced.

They often meet with manufacturers, lawyers and clients to make sure that design plans are safe and will withstand a number of conditional variables, such as safety. They create engineering plans on computers using computer-aided design (CAD) systems, which simulate realistic three-dimensional models and test and predict possible errors and problems with a mechanism, generating workable solutions. Although most work takes place on computers or in laboratories, petrochemical engineers sometimes travel to meetings and factories to supervise and see their work in progress.

Petrochemical engineers are required to constantly update their skills and knowledge in order to keep up with technological advancements in this quickly changing field.
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  Interests and Skills  
Petrochemical engineers are analytical, creative and innovative thinkers with excellent problem solving skills. They have a natural affinity and aptitude for mathematics and science and can often visualize complex processes and design on computers. They possess excellent communication skills, both written and oral, and have the ability to work well in teams with people from various disciplines and backgrounds.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Design, maintain and manage petrochemical and petroleum processing plants
  • Design and operate quality and environmental control systems
  • Troubleshoot environmental problems in industrial processing and manufacturing plants
  • Ensure efficient, safe and environmentally responsible plant operations
  • Supervise technologists, technicians and other engineers engaged in support activities
  • Choose the best instruments for measuring pressure, temperature, flow rate and composition
  • Advise management regarding the layout of industrial plants and the installation and sizing of equipment
  • Determine the most effective processes for commercial production
  • Conduct economic evaluations of projects to find the most cost-effective options
  • Design and develop new and better processes and equipment for converting raw materials into products using computers to simulate, model and control such processes
  • A typical day for a petrochemical engineer will take place in an office, industrial plant or laboratory environment. They usually work standard workweeks, unless a deadline must be met or an emergency occurs, requiring the expertise of the petrochemical engineer. Engineers who work in production may come in contact with hazardous machinery and chemicals on a regular basis.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Most petrochemical engineers work in businesses known collectively as the chemical process industries (CPI), which include the chemical, oil and gas, food and beverage, textile and agricultural chemical industries, to name a few. They work alongside scientists, mathematicians, technicians and administrators.
  • Petrochemical engineers work wherever there is a process of chemical conversion, for example in petroleum refining and oil sands extraction. Some are employed by instrumentation and control companies, engineering design companies, biotechnology firms and environmental companies.

  Long Term Career Potential  
Advancement as a petrochemical engineer is quite boundless. Since many petrochemical engineers have a general background in chemical engineering, they may focus on new technological areas such as biomedicine, genetic engineering and other biotechnologies. Petrochemical engineers can move to production management positions and supervise junior engineers. Some become scientists or concentrate their work entirely on research and development. Other engineers could use their skills and pursue careers in law, publishing, education or medicine. Eventually, some become chief executive officers (CEO) or heads of other organizations.

  Educational Paths  
While still in high school, if this is the career path you are interested in taking, make sure you take courses in mathematics and chemistry. Most university programs will require these subject areas as prerequisites.

Petrochemical engineers require a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering or in a related petroleum engineering field. Then, they must also become registered as a professional engineer (PEng) within an association of professional engineers to secure employment and practice in their field. Some engineers also get master's degrees in a specific area, such as petroleum engineering.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002, http://www.bls.gov/oes/2002/oes_nat.htm

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