Assoc Prof/Graduate Program Dir.,
University of South Dakota
Natural oil and gas (petroleum) are found below the Earth’s surface and are highly prized as sources of both fuel and as starting materials for many commercial products, including most plastics. Petroleum engineering is the application of chemistry, physics, math, geology, and engineering principles to discover a cost-effective way to identify promising areas for exploration, access this natural resource, and refine it into desirable products. Chemists in the oil and petroleum industry work with crude oil and the products derived from it.
The industry is divided into both “upstream” and “downstream” parts, depending on how far away from the well the work is. The upstream activities include exploration and production and the downstream activities include refining and marketing comprise the petroleum industry. This industry needs chemical engineers, organic, analytical, inorganic, physical chemists, biochemists, and geochemists, as well as experts in tracer chemistry, informatics, and more. Biochemistry is important in the production of oil because bacteria change the quality of oil over time, interfering with production and causing downstream corrosion problems and toxic hazards, for example. Inorganic chemists, organic chemists, analytical chemists, and chemical engineers all play a role in catalyst science, technology, and development, which is crucial for the petroleum and petrochemical industries.
There is a green side to petroleum chemistry as well. Complying with environmental regulations is essential to the industry, and scientists must always be aware of how a process or product will affect the environment, and how that impact can be minimized. Chemists are always looking for ways to replace existing refinery processes and products with cleaner, safer, and more efficient ones.
There are currently approximately 20 schools that offer undergraduate degrees in petroleum engineering. A solid foundation in organic and physical chemistry is vital, analytical chemistry skills are extremely important, and a background in chemical engineering is also useful. There are a range of chemist and chemical engineering positions for people with bachelors’ and master’s degrees, but a Ph.D. is generally required for research or more senior positions.
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.
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.
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. They may decide to move into more managerial positions, sales work, or other chemistry-adjacent roles.
Demand for chemists in the oil and petroleum industry varies along with the price of oil and natural gas. When prices are high, companies expand their exploratory efforts and hire more chemists. Currently, demand is strong at all degree levels, especially for bachelor and master’s level petroleum engineers.
Chemists in the oil industry describe themselves as practical people who are interested in solving problems. Some say they are more interested in the development of scientific products than in applied science. Others devote their careers to discovering the fundamental science which will form the basis of future processes. Most underscore the importance of liking lab work and being able to work 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 also helpful.