get money

January 14, 2011

As for the jobs: my degree is in Chemical Engineering, so I’m looking for something in that realm. I’m particularly interested in energy, and the best way to describe my interest in an umbrella sense is I’m interested in smart ways to store and use energy. To simplify it best, there is pretty much one original source of energy, and that’s the big bang. Energy from the big bang is, generally speaking, within our reach in four forms:

  • Heat from the molten core of the earth
  • Kinetic energy of the moon’s orbit (imparted gravitationally on the oceans as tides)
  • Nuclear energy of elements found on our planet
  • Heat and radiation from the sun

When we use the heat from the molten core of the earth, we call that “geothermal energy”. When we use the energy from the tides, we call that “tidal energy”. When we use the energy embodied in the nuclei of terrestrial elements, we call that “nuclear energy”. All other forms of available energy are derived, in some way, from the sun, and these include:

 

  • Photosynthetic biomass, both young (i.e. plants and animals) and old (i.e. fossil fuels)
  • Hydroelectric (part of the water cycle, which is driven by solar heat)
  • Wind (driven by temperature gradients caused by the sun)
  • Solar (direct capture of solar radiation)

As an end product, energy is always needed in a particular form. As food, it’s mostly needed in the form of carbohydrates  and lipids. To power motors, it’s mostly needed in the form of combustible fuel. To run lights, it’s needed as electrical current. There is a whole world of research going on about how to make our energy demand more efficient, and that is really where most of the low-hanging fruit is for people who want to reduce fossil fuel dependency and greenhouse gas emissions. However, it’s not the field that most interests me, which is energy supply. 

The question of energy supply is this: how can we most cheaply transfer energy from the form, time, and place where we encounter it to the form, time, and place where we need it? For a long time, the answer to this has seemed to be: fossil fuels. However, we are constantly changing the way that we count up costs, so we are constantly returning to this question. Right now, a lot of people are trying to incorporate two new costs into our cost-accounting framework, and they are each a “cost” associated with a doomsday scenario that fossil fuels are driving us toward:

  • Continued extracting and burning of buried carbon elevates atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, which destabilizes the earth’s climate
  • Continued use of fossil fuels leads to the depletion of energy sources not controlled by OPEC, so that a small group of countries (including Iran and Venezuela) begin to exert a colossal influence on world affairs

Presently these two scenarios can be considered “negative externalities” in the cost of fossil fuels. Because the market price of fossil fuels does not currently account for the potential costs of these outcomes, fossil fuel prices are artificially low. In fact, many investors seem to believe that the true cost of fossil fuels exceeds the true cost of non-fossil fuel alternatives. Anticipating OPEC-driven increases in the price of oil and cap-and-trade systems that increase the price of all fossil fuels, these investors are putting a lot of money into research and development of new energy production schemes. For a long time, the economies of scale devoted to producing fossil fuels have made the marketplace hostile to competing energy supply systems. Now there is a lot of potential for a new system to become competitive.

This is the setup for what I find so exciting about energy right now.

Anyway, I’m not particularly interested in hydroelectric or nuclear. I’m also not particularly crazy about carbon capture and sequestration or geoengineering. And I don’t really want to work on combined cycle power plants or improved internal combustion engines. I may discuss the reasons for this in future posts.

Having made those exceptions, there are a bunch of leftover technologies that I DO find interesting, but my expertise as a chemical engineer suits itself better to some than to others.

Best fits for ChemEs:

  • Biofuels (very similar to classic chemical engineering problems based on petroleum)
  • Hydrogen (classic gas handling and processing)
  • Fuel cells (more nuanced, but essentially all chemistry)
  • Geothermal (drilling is analogous to petroleum drilling; choice of working fluid in binary cycle plants is all chemical engineering)

Decent fits:

  • Batteries (moving toward solid-state polymers)
  • Solar (advanced semiconductor processes – primarily materials science)

Worst fits:

  • Wind (mechanical and aerospace)
  • Wave farms i.e. tidal

The most developed of these technologies are probably wind and solar, so there are a decent number of jobs in those areas. Several are too niche, or too underdeveloped, to attract much interest: hydrogen, fuel cells, geothermal, and wave farms. Batteries and biofuels sit in the region where a lot of different companies are trying to figure out how to make the technology work, which makes them very exciting.

So, long story short, I’m mostly looking for work in advanced batteries and biofuels. At the same time, I’m keeping my eye out for job postings in solar, hydrogen, fuel cells, and geothermal.

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