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Refinery Engineer


A world without oil and petroleum is hard to imagine. Yet a world without oil refineries would render crude oil useless in many of its potential functions. The earliest refineries were literally tea kettles, yet today the process has become far more complex. Petroleum refineries are marvels of modern engineering. Within a refinery lies a maze of pipes, distillation columns, and chemical reactors that turn crude oil into valuable products. Crude oil is the raw form of petroleum that gets purified or refined into better energy fuelling sources. Crude oil molecules come in all shapes, sizes and forms, therefore refining consists of sorting, splitting apart, reassembling and blending these hydromolecules. The final products range from gasoline to synthetic rubber. This is accomplished by physical separations and chemical reactions and temperature, pressure and catalysts play a dominant role. Refinery engineers design these complicated refineries and refining processes and work to ensure that quality and quantity are maintained at a refinery.

There are five general steps in the refinery process: distillation, catalytic reforming, alkylation, catalytic cracking and hydroprocessing. Without these imperative steps, petroleum refineries would not work properly. Refinery engineers developed those standards and now work on improving existing processes. They 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 refining techniques, engineer's 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. Refining engineers are like alchemists; they turn raw materials into valuable products. They usually work with a team of chemists and other scientists.

Refining engineers extract existing data and design methods to design better refined products and operate specifications for industrial plants. They take into account cost, safety and environmental concerns when conducting research and performing experiments. Refining engineers working in refineries 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, refinery engineers sometimes travel to meetings and factories to supervise and see their work in progress.

Refinery 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  
Refinery 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
  • Since all refineries perform different functions, the job of the engineer will vary accordingly. A general day for a refinery engineer will take place in an office, refinery, 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 refinery engineer. Engineers who work in production may come in contact with hazardous machinery and chemicals on a regular basis.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Refinery 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.
  • Most refinery 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.

  Long Term Career Potential  
Advancement as a refinery engineer is quite boundless. Since many refinery engineers have a general background in chemical engineering, they may focus on new technological areas such as biomedicine, genetic engineering and other biotechnologies. Refinery 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.

Refinery engineers require a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering or in a related petroleum refinery 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 refining 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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