Duties: Plan, design, construct, operate, and maintain structures and equipment utilized in the process of extracting coal by a coal gasification process
Alternate Title(s): Process Engineer
Salary Range: $40,000 to $95,000 or more
Employment Prospects: Poor
Advancement Prospects: Poor to Fair
Education or Training - Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering technology, electrical engineering technology, or mining engineering technology required; a master’s degree in one of these three and/or chemical engineering is often also necessary; a Ph.D. in either mining engineering or environment management is recommended
Experience - 10 or more years experience in the coal mining and energy business is a necessity
Special Skills and Personality Traits - Basic knowledge of engineering procedures and techniques; capable of being a team player but also accepting personal responsibility; excellent communication and interpersonal abilities, including outstanding presentation skills; fundamental understanding of coal mining, hydrodynamics, geology, and process engineering; good analytical skills and high attention to detail; proven ability in problem solving and project management
Special Requirements - Licensure as a Professional Engineer is a requirement
Mining Engineer >> Coal Gasification Engineer >> General Manager
Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle
The traditional means of extracting coal from the earth has been the building of open pits (from which earth is removed and the coal extracted from it) or underground mines. In the latter, the construction of mineshafts and tunnels are necessary, into which miners go with tools, both manual and automated, to extract the coal from the earth. These operations are both costly and problematic, in that both waste and pollution to the environment are inevitable by-products, and the process is dangerous for both the miner’s health and safety.
A relatively new process of converting the energy content of coal into electricity, hydrogen, and other energy forms has been introduced that bypasses the traditional methods of extracting coal. It is known as underground coal gasification (UCG). The process was first developed as a large-scale gas production technique in the 1960s (though it had been in use in the Soviet Union since 1928). As a process, it is being tested and accepted in many countries around the globe as well as the United States.
Gasification is the chemical process of converting a solid or liquid fuel into a combustible gas, which can subsequently be used to produce heat or generate power. Underground coal gasification is a gasification process applied to non-mined (or previously difficult to excavate) coal seams, using injection and production wells drilled from the surface, which enables the coal to be converted in situ (on site, instead of being removed to the surface first) into product gas. These product gases are transported to the surface for processing and utilization (and in this process, the coal gas is separated from the carbon dioxide or CO2). Initially this large-scale method of coal conversion was problematic because transmitting the gases to and from the combustion zone was unreliable and costly. However, improved directional underground drilling - developed for the oil and gas industries in the 1990s - has proven to be directly applicable to the de-gassing of coal seams. Furthermore, methods of using assorted oxidants to convert the coal to gas (according to the type and depth of the coal seam), of controlling the process parameters (of operating pressure and heat dissipation, outlet temperature, and flow of gas through the pipelines to the surface), and of avoiding contamination of the underground environment have all contributed to the growing success of this process.
There are several advantages to UCG, often referred to as an integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC), over conventional coal extraction techniques. The process is proving to be safer, simpler, cleaner, and more versatile in its extraction methods. It doubles (and may even triple) making available coal resources available to refinement, as much of previously un-minable coal (such as coal beds found near earthquake faults or volcanic intrusions, or coal beds too deep for safe conventional mining) are now open to possible extraction. Moreover, there is little to no ash or slag (residue from the mining process) removal or handling needed as most of this inert material remains behind in the underground cavities. Another advantage is that the transport of the gas is done by pipeline, not by railcar. Furthermore, coal gasification power plants cleanse as much as 99 percent of the pollutant-forming impurities from coal-derived gases. In addition, the coal gases, cleaned of their impurities, are fired in a gas turbine to generate one source of electricity. The hot exhaust of the gas turbine is then used to generate steam for a more conventional steam turbine-generator. This dual source of electric power, called a combined cycle, converts much more of coal’s inherent energy value into usable electricity, thus boosting the efficiency of coal gasification power plants by 50 percent or more.
The job of a Coal Gasification Engineer is to aid in the design, construction, and operation of an integrated gasification project. During the operation, they oversee the drilling of the injection wells into the identified hydrocarbon (coal) field into which the air or oxygen is forcibly introduced into the targeted coal seam. They also oversee the operation of the production wells and pipelines through which the resultant coal gas is brought to the surface and relayed to gas cleaning plants, where the impurities inherent in coal are cleansed, and the unwanted carbon dioxide (CO2) is removed. Then, the resultant coal gas can be sent to processing plants. Thus, one of the major environmental advantages of coal gasification is the opportunity to remove impurities such as sulfur, mercury, and soot before burning the fuel to create energy within electric power generators. (This is unlike traditional coal-burning plants that have to be concerned with the pollutants released by the coal as it burns.)
According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report of 2006–2007, annual earnings in May 2004 for mining engineers (of which Coal Gasification Engineers are a specific discipline) ranged from a low of $39,700 to a high of $103,790, with an average of $64,690.
While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a decline in employment of mining engineers generally, the report also indicates that there are still good employment opportunities, as many mining engineers currently employed are expected to approach retirement age during the coming years. As coal gasification is essentially a new and growing industry technology, engineers specializing in this process have many fresh prospects of employment. Favorable job opportunities in the application of this type of mining technology are becoming available worldwide as this technology proves cost effective and safe. Recruiting of graduates from U.S. mining engineering programs has become worldwide. As a result, some graduates may travel frequently or even live outside the United States.
The next career step for an experienced Coal Gasification Engineer is either to become manager of a coal gasification project and, from there, move into the top management levels of the industry, or to become self-employed as a freelance engineer in this field.
Education and Training
A Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering technology, electrical engineering technology, mining engineering technology, or chemical engineering is a basic requirement. In addition, a master’s degree in one of these four disciplines is often also demanded. While a Ph.D. in either mining engineering or environment management is not obligatory, it is recommended.
Like many other engineering disciplines, Coal Gasification Engineers must have a certification as a professional engineer To become a licensed Professional Engineer, an individual must pass the comprehensive FE (Fundamentals of Engineering) exam, then work a given number of years (usually three to five) as an Engineer in Training (EIT), and then pass the PE (Practicing Engineer) test.
Experience, Skills, and Personality Traits
As the coal gasification process is both a mining and a chemical process, background and experience in both arenas is essential to engineers looking to specialize in this new field. They should be familiar with the various facets of process engineering including piping design, pipeline terminals, and related equipment specifications. They should have some background serving in a project management role within a plant environment and have knowledge of the most current mining and chemical engineering principles and practices.
Beyond their basic knowledge of engineering procedures and technologies, Coal Gasification Engineers should have a thorough understanding of coal mining, hydrodynamics, geology, and process engineering. They must be computer literate (proficient in MS Access, Excel, and Word programs), conversant with product design development cycles, and have experience in analyzing complex technical problems. They need to be heavily detail-oriented and exhibit good communication and interpersonal abilities.
Unions and Associations
The most useful professional associations for Coal Gasification Engineers are the American Chemical Society (ACS) and the Society for Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration (SME). Other major professional groups might include the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), the Association of Energy Engineers (AEE) or the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE).
Tips for Entry
1. While earning your bachelor’s degree in electrical, mechanical, or mining engineering, take courses in chemistry and even consider an advanced degree in chemical engineering.
2. Search for paying or nonpaying internships, fellowships, and co-op industry work in the coal-mining field to gain firsthand experience in the business.
3. Consider working in the hazardous waste treatment industry and/or project engineering in oil or gas refineries and chemical plants to broaden your background in environmental and process engineering.