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Making a Difference: Work as a Chemical Engineer

Working for a petrochemical giant doesn't have to be all about making an already rich company even richer. It's also possible to use the opportunity to do work that matters.

John Ma (pictured left), a chemical engineer in Alberta, is an example. His professional goal, currently, is to make his chemical processing plant more efficient and more environmentally friendly. And that matters to him. "I feel like I am getting to explore my personal career potentials while at the same time helping my company achieve certain environmental standards," says Ma.

Ma works at Dow Chemical's ethylene-processing plant in Fort Saskatchewan, in northern Alberta. Sitting on an 850-hectare manufacturing site, Dow Chemical's Fort Saskatchewan location is the second largest ethylene-producing facility in the world, after a neighbouring facility in Alberta, also owned by Dow. Liquid natural gas is piped in and ethane is extracted and converted to ethylene, which is used to make other products and specialty chemicals such as polyethylene, vinyl monomers, and glycols. "We're really the starting point for all the other chemicals that are made by the company," says Ma.

A portion of Ma's day is spent "putting out fires" on the plant floor, he says, but he also gets to spend time on scientifically interesting projects. The latest of these is his furnace-emissions-reduction project.

A Cleaner Future

In order for Dow to continue to operate its ethylene furnaces, the company need to have a license. Every year, Dow conducts compliance testing and sends the results to the provincial environmental agency, showing (it is hoped) that the plant is operating within its compliance limit. But staying within these limits is becoming harder to do. "Over the years, we've constantly been increasing our rates and running our furnaces a little harder, a little bit hotter, and as a result our emissions have increased as well," says Ma. "Now we're running into the problem of running into our license limit."

If the plant were to exceed its license limit, it could face stiff penalties and even be shut down. While the company is still safely below the limit, trying to keep it in a safe and healthy range means a chance for Ma to do some stimulating work. "I feel like I'm making a useful contribution not only to the company but to the environment. I feel that it's not driven so much by dollars but more by complying with government standards and making sure that the company is following the rules," says Ma.

Dow Chemical polyethylene plant, Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta (Courtesy Dow Chemical Canada)

The Job Market

According to Ma, it's a great time for chemical engineers to consider working in the Canadian petrochemical sector, especially in Alberta and British Columbia. And the time is right. "I think that you have the greatest opportunities right now," he says.

One of the best prospects is the tar-sands project in Northern Alberta. Typically, oil extractions focus on big oil reservoirs in bedrock from which the crude oil is pumped out. In Alberta, these large pits of crude oil are trapped within sand, so getting the oil out of the sand is harder. The result, Ma says, is a flurry of construction on new plants and facilities to extract oil from the tar sands. These tar-sand reservoirs contain at least 1.7 trillion barrels of oil, experts say. "If you go with the numbers that are being published, if you account for the tar sands in Northern Alberta, we're supposed to have the second largest oil reserves in the world, second only to Saudi Arabia," says Ma. "There's a lot more opportunity with large-scale projects at these new oil and gas facilities that are being built." And that means jobs.

David Shearing, senior manager in business and economics for the Canadian Chemical Producers' Association, says that the job prospects for chemical engineers in Canada are good, especially for those with an interest in petrochemicals. "There are definitely real opportunities opening up in the chemical products and chemical manufacturing industries," says Shearing. "The petrochemical sector particularly is seeing a definite growth out west." A 2000 study found that the average salary for advanced-degreed chemical engineers 2 years past their last degree was $47,000 and was increasing by 8% per year. If that rate of increase has persisted, that salary today should be about $70,000.

Into the Pipeline

After graduating with a Ph.D. in polymer engineering from Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, in 2002, Ma figured it was time to leave the bubble and explore his industrial options. "There's a whole different world out there within industry, and I wanted to see what it was like working for a big company," he says. It was, he realized, a big change. "Within academia, you're free to go about doing research; you have to become good at writing grants and making presentations and conveying your ideas to others. In industry it's different; you're driving towards the bottom line, which is dollars."

Chemical engineering graduates shouldn't limit their focus to their specific niche, Ma advises. He fell into this trap when he graduated, hunting exclusively for jobs in his highly specialized polymer field. "One of the things that I realized was that if you try to market yourself that way, you really do limit the opportunities that are available to you," Ma says. After weeks of arduous job hunting, he realized that he needed to get experience in chemical processing, whether in polymers or something completely different. "I took a step back and I thought about what it is I am, and it's a chemical engineer, and so I should open up to all the possibilities across the entire chemical industry," he says.

Ma is excited about a new initiative Dow is starting that will allow researchers to spend time on personal projects. "Being in Fort Saskatchewan, we're located away from the major research centres in Texas," Ma says. "So they plan on giving us what they call 'skunk time', which is essentially 10% to 15% of our time to spend on independent research that interests us but still delivers something to the company."

Although he admits that one day he might like to go back to academia, for now he is content staying put in the industrial world. He credits his success to keeping an open mind and grabbing what opportunities he had. "When I graduated, I was thinking that I want to make the biggest impact I can in this world. I learned that to get to where you want to go, you sometimes have to take another road," Ma says.

Andrew Fazekas is a correspondent at Next Wave and may be reached at

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