Energy Career Field Structure
Nearly every field of science and engineering is involved in the energy industry. Among the oil industry’s key employees are geologists, geophysicists, petroleum engineers, chemists, and chemical engineers. Together, these highly skilled men and women carry much of the responsibility for finding oil, producing it, processing it in the refinery, and conducting petroleum research.
The U.S. oil industry is made up of thousands of companies engaged in one or more of five principal categories: exploration, production, refining, transportation, and marketing. Companies active in all five are known as integrated companies.
Mineralogists and paleontologists who study fossil remains in the earth as a clue to oil-bearing sands are among the scientists who perform exploration research. According to one expert, the chances of striking oil when a well is drilled average only one in nine. Only one in 144 wells drilled in new fields results in commercially significant quantities of oil and natural gas.
Geologists use a variety of sources to help find petroleum. They use background information to hunt for signs of certain kinds of underground rock formations where oil is likely to collect. For example, oil may be found where layers of certain kinds of rocks have slipped or tilted in a particular way, or where the layers have been pushed up to form a kind of underground dome. Sometimes geologists can find places where the tilted layers stick out of the earth. They frequently drill holes to get core samples of the underground layers.
Geophysicists rely on another important type of exploration method. Working with such tools as the gravimeter, magnetometer, and seismograph, they chart underground rock formations and calculate the composition, depth, thickness, and slope of the structures. In the past, these calculations were made with explosives, set off at several different points.
Later developments in seismic land surveys include the use of vibratory or percussion devices that do away with the drilling of holes and the use of explosives. With vibratory devices, the geophysicist can get accurate information and minimize environmental damage. In water, these devices send out pulses in the form of electrical discharges or contained explosions of propane gas or air so that marine life won’t be harmed.
Petroleum and natural gas often are found in the same fields. When the geologist and the geophysicist have turned in their reports and recommendations, a petroleum company decides whether to drill. Drilling requires a great amount of equipment and supplies. Dozens of skilled workers are required, including exploration crew, geologists, drilling crew, engineers, and other skilled technicians. Once recovered, the crude oil has to be transported to refineries where it is turned into thousands of useful products.
Gas energy comes primarily from domestic natural gas wells. Gas production has been bolstered by pipeline imports from Canada, by domestic production of synthetic natural gas from petroleum, and by delivery of liquefied natural gas by ship from overseas. Potential sources for future use include natural gas from Alaska and Mexico, natural gas from coal, and gas from renewable organic and other unconventional sources. Advancing technology may allow us to draw energy from seawater and from pools of superheated brine.
Another recent technological advancement is the use of nuclear energy to generate electricity. Nuclear power plants are made up of one or more nuclear reactor units. In each unit, uranium undergoes a fission reaction, which produces enormous quantities of heat. During this fission reaction, the nucleus of an atom is split into energized particles called neutrons. The neutrons are released at such great speed that they collide with other atomic nuclei and cause additional splitting action to occur. This chain reaction would be uncontrollable if it did not occur within the walls of the reactor core. If the chain reaction is not contained properly, the results could be catastrophic, as in the 1986 incident in Chernobyl nuclear plant in the former USSR (now Ukraine). Nuclear fission also produces toxic, long-lived nuclear waste, so the nuclear power industry and government must develop ways to contain these wastes for the long term.
Heat generated by this fission process creates steam from water circulating around the reactor core. Pipes keep the steam under very high pressure and carry it away to the turbine, which drives the electric generator that produces electricity.
Solar energy converts the sun’s light into energy that can be used to make electricity. In the near future, the demand for architects that can design buildings to maximize sunlight will grow, as will the demand for installers of solar systems for homes and businesses. According to the American Solar Energy Institute, more than one million Americans use solar water heaters, more than 500,000 use solar energy to heat their swimming pools, and more than 200,000 homes use solar electric (PV) technology.
Wind energy has been the fastest growing energy technology in the world for the past three years, according to the American Wind Energy Association. In order to better harness this renewable energy source, engineers will be needed to improve the design of today’s windmills and make them more efficient so that wind energy rates can compete with other available energy sources. Until just a few years ago, most wind farms were concentrated in California and Texas, but other states with sizable wind farm development include Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. According to the American Wind Energy Association, the U.S. wind industry employs more than 2,000 people who contribute directly to the economies of 46 states. The U.S. installed capacity has increased significantly since 1998, from 1,900 megawatts to over 10,000 megawatts in 2006. The Pacific Northwest Laboratory predicts that U.S. wind energy potential could be as high as 10,777 billion kilowatts generated annually, or more than twice the electricity generated in the U.S. today.