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Fueling An Analytical Chemistry Career

Stimulus bill may energize employment in renewable energy

by Corinne A. Marasco
March 9, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 10

Liquid Fuel
Credit: Virent Energy Systems
Scientists work in a lab at Virent that produces gasoline and other products.
Credit: Virent Energy Systems
Scientists work in a lab at Virent that produces gasoline and other products.

ANALYTICAL CHEMISTS seeking employment in today's weak economy will need to think outside the box to find jobs that tap their particular skill sets. Job searches are likely to be complicated by the nearly universal angst caused by the global financial crisis and the relatively few positions available in this crowded job market. National emphasis on renewable fuels, however, is likely to create opportunities for analytical chemists with good biology and biochemistry skills and the ingenuity to apply them in unusual ways.

Despite current labor market conditions, some areas of the economy are still growing with a little help from the federal government. For example, directives in the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009 to reduce the nation's dependence on fossil fuels will create some jobs. The stimulus package also sets aside billions of dollars for renewable energy and infrastructure projects (C&EN, Feb. 23, page 10) and industries that support renewable fuels, as well as for nuclear, solar, wind, and wave energy.

Sean O'Hanlon, executive director of the American Biofuels Council, is bullish on next-generation biofuels. "Many people in the industry are fairly confident that cellulosic ethanol has arrived, and the only thing left to do is to build commercial-scale plants," he says. O'Hanlon believes that commercial-scale production of algae for fuel is just around the corner. And producers of these fuels will have an instant customer base: the Air Force has announced that by 2015 its air fleet will be running on 50% biofuels. The federal government and the states are most interested in technology transfer and deployment.

Yet even with the biofuels industry expected to grow as the White House renews the push to energy independence, job growth isn't a certainty because the industry is constantly changing. The best advice for job seekers is to figure out what work interests them, learn the core competencies, and then network in the field experiencing growth.

With biofuels in mind, C&EN asked several companies, including some that are attending this week's Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry & Applied Spectroscopy (Pittcon), in Chicago, about the role of analytical chemistry in alternative energy research, particularly on biofuels and biodiesel. Analytical chemists working with biofuels must have particularly well-honed problem-solving skills, according to C&EN's sources. Interpreting analytical results also requires an innovative mind-set and specific chemistry skills.

Some companies producing biofuels or biodiesel are growing rapidly. For example, Virent Energy Systems, in Madison, Wis., has grown quickly, from 20 employees three years ago to 75 today, says Mark Heininger, the firm's manager of R&D analysis. The company has developed a catalytic process to convert sugars into hydrocarbons that is more energy efficient than making fuels through gasification, pyrolysis, and fermentation, Heininger says. The process, called BioForming, results in hydrocarbons that can then be used directly as fuels or blended to make conventional liquid fuels (C&EN, Nov. 17, 2008, page 57).

"As long as the technology continues to improve and companies continue to get funding, the future is very bright for the biofuel industry."

Heininger's group of 14 scientists includes 10 individuals with chemistry degrees; the others represent a variety of sciences, such as physics and biology. Everyone has at least a B.S., and some have advanced degrees. They perform the same kind of analysis that is done in the petroleum industry, and they use ASTM methods to determine product quality, flash points, chemical composition, acid content, and so on.

Biomass comprises materials that are tremendously challenging for analysis, and analytical chemists who can accurately characterize these materials are extremely important, Heininger says. "We're looking for skills and expertise at the interface of biology and chemistry so we can understand the structure of cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin and get them separated, characterized, and quantitated," he says.

"Typically, we do a lot of gas chromatography with mass spectrometry," Heininger says, "but we also use flame ionization detectors and thermal conductivity detectors, liquid chromatography, and wet chemistry. Some methods are taken straight out of the literature, and others are our own creations, such as our method for looking at the product composition of biogasoline."

Michael Cheng, a staff scientist at Chevron Energy Technology, says his team does whatever is necessary to characterize biofuel constituents by using MS, ultraviolet and infrared spectroscopy, and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, as well as elemental and other spectroscopic analyses. He confirms that biofuels are challenging for analytical chemists because they are more like biological systems than they are like petroleum products, which are traditional analytes at Chevron. Petroleum products are generally fat soluble, but more recently most of the compounds in biofuels have been derived from water-soluble compounds. So it's important to understand aqueous chemistry, biology, and biochemistry to fully understand biofuels, Cheng says.

Chevron doesn't make biodiesel, per se; the company buys it from the manufacturers and blends it with petroleum diesel. The scientists in Cheng's group help solve the problems that arise in the use of the blends, such as plugged filters, corroding parts, and gums that form during storage. In 2007, Chevron began working on second-generation biofuels in a collaborative R&D agreement with the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

In Middletown, Conn., Real-Time Analyzers is investigating the ability of Raman spectroscopy to monitor and control biodiesel production. Raman can provide critical information to ensure optimum reactor performance, says Stuart Farquharson, the company's president and chief executive officer.

"We already use our analyzer to determine many performance properties of gasoline, diesel, and jet fuels," Farquharson says, such as freezing point, boiling point, flash point, heat of combustion, viscosity, as well as various chemical properties. The attraction of Raman, he adds, is that no sample preparation is involved and all measurements are made in one minute or less.

Phenomenex, which has its headquarters in Torrance, Calif., and operates worldwide, develops devices for high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and GC instruments. Michael McGinley, who heads the LC group, focuses on the bioethanol HPLC markets. Although most of the company's business is in pharma and biotech products, biofuels is a new and growing area, he says.

Ethanol is made by treating corn starch with an enzyme that helps break it down into simple sugars; the sugars are then converted to ethanol through fermentation, McGinley explains. HPLC is used to monitor the process at various stages by quantifying the breakdown of starches to sugars and assessing the fermentation process. After ethanol is produced, GC is used to determine the composition of the final gasoline-ethanol blend to ensure it meets ASTM certification standards.

Despite the national interest in renewable energy, it's difficult to predict how many new jobs the stimulus bill will generate. That outcome partially depends on how the Departments of Energy, Agriculture, and the Interior; other agencies; and states decide to spend the money. The price of fossil fuels also has an impact because lower prices reduce the momentum for biofuels research.

"There is no doubt that biofuels are the wave of the future," says Jonathan Thomas, a recruiter with the Florida-based search firm Ropella. "As long as the technology continues to improve and companies continue to get funding, the future is very bright for this industry. The key is just to hold on during these rough times." Most of the companies he has contacted have indicated that it may take as long as six months to two years for the industry to truly "take off," he says.


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