The ever-evolving field of renewable energy technology offers career possibilities for a number of scientific disciplines. Two of the key paths of study are chemistry and biology, although in some renewable energy fields these two disciplines overlap. One example is the study of biomass, a renewable energy source made possible thanks to a plant’s ability to photosynthesize energy from the sun. Biologic understandings of this process combined with chemical analysis help scientists create biofuels. This and other alternative energy pursuits have given rise to the crossover field of biological chemistry.
A Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry usually takes four years to complete. Students may specialize in biochemistry, chemical engineering, bioinformatics or the forensic sciences. Biochemistry also provides a good foundation for advancement into medical school.
Progression into the M.S. and Ph.D. programs require a minimum number of semester hours, typically 35, in chemistry-related courses, higher math and at least one year of physics. A Master of Science degree requires an additional 18 semester hours with half of those hours in the chosen chemistry field and the submission of a thesis. The Doctorate of Philosophy further defines that chosen field, with an additional 18 semester hours of course work, the presentation of a seminar and completion of a written research paper. Ph.D. candidates must participate in an assigned research project, pass an oral exam and then publically present and defend a thesis paper based on that research.
Students interested in a Bachelor of Science degree in biology may pursue a general degree or specialize. Biochemistry, taking the study of life to the molecular and chemical level, is particularly suited for industrial research and the renewable energy field. Cell, molecular and developmental biology delve even further into molecular research.
Biology students may also specialize in ecology, evolution and environmental biology, a foundation for those wanting to pursue careers as ecologists, environmental assessment specialists or secure positions in governmental environmental agencies. The timeframe and basic requirements for achieving a B.S. in biology and the progression into the M.S. and Ph.D. programs are similar to those in the chemistry program.
Applicable Renewable Energy Careers
Those with chemistry or biology degrees may want to pursue a career in green or sustainable chemistry. Green chemists evaluate the chemical process and composition of substances with the intent of reducing or eliminating their potential environmental impact. As an example, the California Environmental Protection Agency employs more than 1,000 scientists and engineers in their nine offices. These employees oversee hazardous waste spills, develop new methods for evaluating pollution levels in air, water and soil and participate in studies for new environmental energy technologies.
Opportunities for renewable energy careers are also available in the private sector for biology and/or chemistry majors. As an example, BP Energy is doing research into the production of advanced biofuels. The firm is also studying methods of extracting traditional fuels that would reduce hydrocarbons, thus creating cleaner energy production.
The pursuit of a biology or chemistry degree opens up opportunities in fields as diverse as fuel cell technology–used in the creation of alternative-fuel cars–and urban agriculture, which promotes green roofs to help reduce CO2 emissions and improve air quality. The living roof at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco is a striking example of the latter. Regardless of which educational direction a student chooses–chemistry or biology–it’s safe to assume the student will one day cross paths with both fields in the course of a career in the sciences.