Oil & Petroleum Chemistry

Chemists in the oil industry tend to be highly practical problem-solvers. They enjoy lab work and working on a team that involves communicating with chemical engineers, product managers, and customers. Because the industry is product focused, an interest in business and a flair for sales can be helpful.

Typical Job Functions

Petroleum engineering is the application of chemistry, physics, math, geology, and engineering to discover a cost-effective way to explore and access petroleum. Most chemists in this field work for large oil companies or for independent companies that support the industry with fluid-cracking catalysts, chemicals used to aid in the drilling and refinery area, or technical support for handling environmental systems.

The industry is divided into “upstream” and “downstream” parts, depending on how far away from the well the work is.

  • Upstream activities include exploration and production.
  • Downstream activities include refining and marketing.

The oil and petroleum field involves multiple branches of chemistry, including: biochemistry, inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, analytical chemistry, and chemical engineering.

Typical work duties of a chemist involved in the oil and petroleum industry include:

  • Developing more efficient ways of turning petroleum into automotive or aviation fuel
  • Petroleum characterization, e.g., “fingerprint” oil leaked in a spill to trace its origin
  • Monitoring quality and increasing production yields
  • Exploring potential new sites for drilling activities
  • Developing new products from petroleum feedstocks; improving feedstock blends
  • Specialists in chemometrics install and operate delicate lab instruments under the hostile conditions of a refinery (e.g., temperature extremes, vibrations from surrounding equipment, etc.)

Chemists in this field must always be aware of how a process or product will affect the environment, and how that impact can be minimized.

Career Paths

In the beginning, entry-level engineers may receive additional training from their company, and are usually supervised by a more experienced engineer. Over time, they will earn more independence and work on larger and more complex projects. Eventually, they will become the supervising engineers.

Seasoned professionals in the field may decide to move into more managerial positions, sales work, or other chemistry-adjacent roles.

Oil and petroleum chemists spend most of their time working in the lab. They may go into the refinery occasionally or collect samples in the field. Chemists work in groups and often with chemical engineers, physicists, lawyers, and economists.

Getting Started

A solid foundation in organic, physical, and analytical chemistry is vital for chemists in the oil and petroleum field. There are positions for chemists and chemical engineers with bachelors’ and master’s degrees. A Ph.D. is generally required for research or more senior positions.

Additional skills and knowledge that are useful for this field include:

  • Background in chemical engineering
  • Analytical and problem-solving skills to identify and resolve project challenges
  • Math skills (e.g., calculus) to design and analyze systems

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