Biofuel processing technicians perform a wide variety of tasks from blending chemicals to operating industrial equipment to produce biofuels
The use of oil-based fuels has created both economic and environmental impacts. Both consumers and businesses are affected by fluctuations in oil prices. Also vehicles powered by oil-based fuels release emissions that are harmful to the environment, including greenhouse gases. Scientists and engineers have sought ways to develop energy from green sources, such as biofuels. Biofuels can reduce the use of oil-based fuels and can be more environmentally friendly. Those that hold biofuels processing technician jobs are employed at processing plants to convert feedstock into fuel through various technologies.
Biofuels are produced from biomass, which are materials derived from a living or recently living organism, including plants, grains, vegetable oils, and animal-based oils. These types of materials are commonly referred to as feedstocks. First-generation biofuels are made from biomass such as sugars and starches – materials that are often a food source. Second-generation biofuels, known as cellulosic biofuels, are made from nonfood materials. Most liquid transportation biofuels are classified as either ethanol or biodiesel. Currently, most ethanol on the commercial market is produced from starches, most often corn. Biodiesel is derived from plant oils, often soybean oil, or from animal fat or recycled greases.
The production process to produce biofuels is made up of two main stages: hydrolysis and fermentation. During hydrolysis, a chemical is used to break down the feedstock into sugar. Yeast or bacteria are introduced during the fermentation process to consume the sugar. The output of that process is then distilled in order to separate the ethanol from any waste product. Lastly, the ethanol is dehydrated, producing the ethanol in its purest form. Biodiesel is produced through a chemical process called transesterification, in which oil or fat feedstocks are combined with alcohol and a catalyst, causing a reaction that allows the glycerin to be separated from the oil. Alternatively, some manufacturers may choose a production process known as a thermochemical pathway, which uses high temperatures to convert biomass into ethanol or biodiesel.
Biofuels processing technicians operate chemical processing equipment for the production of biofuels. During the production of biofuels, they operate equipment such as a centrifuge, to extract biofuels products and secondary by-products or reusable fractions. They also operate valves, pumps, engines, or generators to control and adjust biofuels production. They inspect biofuels plant or processing equipment regularly, recording or reporting damage and mechanical problems.
As part of their duties, biofuels processing technicians perform the calculation, measurement, loading, and mixing of refined feedstock used in biofuels production. They process refined feedstock with additives in fermentation or reaction process vessels. They also assess the quality of biofuels additives for reprocessing. During the production process, biofuels processing technicians adjust liquid flow devices and meters including fuel, chemical, and water meters. They collect biofuels samples and perform routine laboratory tests or analyses to assess biofuels quality. They also measure and monitor raw biofuels feedstock. In addition to operating industrial equipment, biofuels processing technicians may also inspect tanks, clean pumps and other equipment, and dispose of waste products. They must follow all safety procedures, including reporting any problems to supervisory staff.
Most biofuels processing technicians work in shifts, as plants operate around the clock. They usually must wear safety equipment, such as gloves or goggles. Work in a plant can be physically demanding because they may have to lift heavy objects and control large machinery. Biofuels processing technicians who work in a plant must complete training to learn all of a company’s standard operating and safety procedures.
To enter these green jobs, most biofuels processing technicians need to have a high school diploma, and many employers prefer workers with a degree from a college or vocational school. Many employers value strong math and science skills and related work experience. Moderate on-the-job training is necessary because of the complex equipment and specific safety procedures of each company.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates a bright outlook for biofuels processing technicians and expects employment of this field to grow about 2 percent from 2010 until 2020; slower than the average for all green jobs. The BLS projected 3,700 biofuels processing technicians job openings between 2010 and 2020, and noted 11,000 jobs are currently filled. Biofuels processing technicians are also referred to as plant operators. The BLS further reports that the median annual wage for salaried biofuels processing technicians was $53,130 in 2012 with median hourly wage of $25.55. Wages and benefits vary by employer and geographic location. Biofuels processing technicians have the highest pay levels in Alaska, where they can receive average wages of approximating $72,390. These occupations receives the best pay in Public Administration, where they get an average salary rate of $63,880.