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Hydrometallurgist


Description

Hydrometallurgists are constantly being compared to alchemists since both are known for their abilities to turn metals into more valuable products. However, the main difference between these two careers is that we can physically and scientifically prove that hydrometallurgists are performing these great feats, whereas alchemy is another story. Metals are being synthesized and formed into useful products everyday. Whether it is silver flatware, iron golf clubs, socket wrenches or key-chain rings, they were all designed and developed by hydrometallurgists. Also called hydrometallurgical engineers, they are involved in the treatment of ores through low temperature refining and wet processes such as leaching.

Metal leaching from ores has been practiced for many centuries, but the large-scale recovery of high-purity metals by hydrometallurgical processing has only recently been achieved. Hydrometallurgists study the nature and properties of different metals and materials and remove insoluble and toxic materials from metal using water-based solutions to find a more pure form of ore. Another technique they may use is electrolytic refining, which is a process that uses electric currents. Once hydrometallurgists become experienced and established, they will often specialize in refining a particular metal, such as copper, zinc or gold.

Like pyrometallurgists, hydrometallurgists seek to extract pure metals and ore through various refining processes; the only difference is that pyrometallurgists work with high temperatures whereas hydrometallurgists work with water and low temperatures. Also, hydrometallurgy is more environmentally safe than its high temperature counterpart because it burns 98 percent less smoke into the air. Accordingly, some hydrometallurgists work at creating new hydrometallurgic processes and equipment. This is one of the more scientifically challenging areas of the profession because it involves extensive research, innovative design and safety and quality testing.

Hydrometallurgists usually work with a team of other engineers, technicians and scientists and make sure that everything is running smoothly and safely. If they do find faults within a mechanism, they will work at creating solutions to prevent potential disasters. Some hydrometallurgists also work at improving already existing products in order to make them more user-friendly or environmentally sustainable. They 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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  Average Earnings  
Lowest 10% of Earners:
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Median Salary:
$64,390
 
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  Interests and Skills  
Hydrometallurgists should possess a natural sense of scientific curiosity when it comes to materials, minerals and metals because they have to create new and improved products from these organic materials. Therefore, they enjoy difficult problem solving, analyzing scientific experiments and finding faster and cheaper methods for production. Some thrive on the hands-on component of the job where they actually get to work with their designs. Hydrometallurgists have the ability to work both independently and in a team environment and also enjoy communicating with fellow workers and clients.
 

  Typical Tasks  
  • Study the properties and characteristics of metallic and non-metallic materials
  • Conduct hydraulic processes for moulding, shaping and melding metals
  • Use thermal and mechanical treatments to modify alloy properties
  • Research, develop and monitor processes for extracting metals from ores, such as refining or leaching
  • Conduct chemical and physical analytical studies, failure analyses, corrosion control measures, operational testing and other procedures
  • Determine appropriate methods for fabricating and joining materials
  • Monitor material performance and evaluate material deterioration
  • Analyze material failures to find causes and develop solutions
  • Supervise technologists, technicians and other engineers and scientists.
  • A typical day for hydrometallurgist will vary according to the area they specialize in. Most spend the majority of time in the laboratory or industrial factory yet there is also an office component in the job description. Many work an average 40 to 50-hour workweek and will put in longer hours when a deadline is coming near or an emergency occurs.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Hydrometallurgists can work in so many different fields because many machines, structures and electronics require metals and similar products. They are often employed by government research organizations, materials testing laboratories, electronics companies, aerospace and marine design, car companies, primary metal producers, mineral processing plants, energy conservation firms, hydraulics companies, petroleum refineries and oil companies and finally, engineering consulting firms specializing in corrosion, pipeline maintenance and other metallurgical work.

  Long Term Career Potential  
Since the hydrometallurgics field is quite specialized, some may say there is no room for movement or advancement. Yet this is a myth. Those with production experience could move into sales or customer service positions. Since they are so knowledgeable about the products they produce, they would make perfect representatives.

Hydrometallurgists can open up their own consulting firms and focus their work primarily on research and development work. Those working in large companies can move into management positions and lead engineering companies. Finally, hydrometallurgical engineers with PhDs can also teach at the postsecondary level.
 

  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.

Hydrometallurgists or pyrometallurgical engineers require a bachelor's degree in metallurgical or materials engineering or in a related 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 pyrometallurgical engineers also get master's degrees in a specific area, such as ceramics engineering.
 

Sources:
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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