Process Engineer

Process engineers design, modify and troubleshoot equipment used in manufacturing and chemical processes. They design new process units or retrofit old equipment for industrial customers such as oil refineries and chemical manufacturing plants. They are often responsible for designs or modifications to increase efficiency or satisfy constraints such as emissions guidelines. Process engineers play a key role in designing alternative methods for production and manufacturing that lessen the impact industry has on the environment.

At a Glance

Imagine you are driving past an enormous oil refinery with six large distillation towers and several massive storage tanks holding more than half a million barrels of oil. You are a process engineer and you know this refinery inside and out. Two years ago, your engineering consulting company won a multimillion-dollar contract to upgrade the refinery in preparation for new federal legislation. The legislation is designed to reduce sulphur emissions by reducing the amount of sulphur in diesel fuel. You and your team of process engineers have been hired to design a process unit that will lower the amount of sulphur in the diesel fuel produced by the refinery.

As a process engineer, you have extensive knowledge of the chemistry, mechanics, and thermodynamics that go into building large refineries like this one. But that's not to say building this process unit will be easy. You start by creating a schematic diagram that details what is supposed to happen at each step in the process as the unit removes excess sulphur from diesel fuel. You use the schematic to create a conceptual layout of the unit that includes details of each piece of equipment used, for example, pumps, compressors, and reactors. A computer drafting technician will use the conceptual layout to generate a three-dimensional image so you can evaluate the unit and identify any conflicts that could affect its performance.

Next, you create a computer simulation of the unit and add the process conditions that will be required, for example, the temperature, pressure, and flow rate. You will use the computer model to run simulations to check measurements and determine if the desulphurizing chemical reaction will occur under the specified conditions. When the computer has verified your calculations, you take the unit to the mechanical engineers who will design the thermal systems and the electrical engineers who will design the instrumentation and control systems. Once all support systems are in place, you can begin construction of the refinery's desulphurizing unit.

Job Duties

Duties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties one might encounter as a process engineer:

  • Troubleshoot operating and related process equipment and recommend solutions.
  • Evaluate design proposals and implementation.
  • Develop analytical programs to monitor and support operations.
  • Assist in the preparation of budgets for construction, capital, and operating expenditures.
  • Maintain process documentation.
  • Compile and evaluate test data to determine appropriate limits and variables for process and material specifications.
  • Develop conceptual plans, define project scope and schedules, and determine required engineering input.
  • Develop economic feasibility studies and evaluate engineering designs and procedures.

Work Environment

Process engineers work in a variety of locations, including:

In the office:

  • Doing paperwork, analyzing data, and preparing reports
  • Drafting plans and designs
  • Preparing and administering construction contracts
  • Communicating on the phone and in meetings with clients, stakeholders, and government departments, and presenting assessment findings and designs to clients
  • Researching new technology and advancements in process engineering, and consulting with other engineers and professionals

In the field:

  • Touring and inspecting sites during construction and operation
  • Reviewing installations
  • Supervising operation of pilot systems
  • Ensuring compliance with appropriate regulations
  • Assisting in process optimization

Where to Work

There are a number of places process engineers can find employment. They include:

  • Engineering and environmental consulting firms
  • Federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal government departments
  • Firms in other industries, for example oil and gas, mining, biotechnology, and manufacturing
  • Industrial contractors
  • Colleges, universities, and research institutes

Education and Skills

If you are a high school student considering a career as a process engineer, you should have strong marks or an interest in:

  • Mathematics
  • Physics
  • Chemistry
  • Calculus
  • English

In most cases, the minimum education requirement to work as a process engineer is a university undergraduate degree. If you are a post-secondary student considering a career as a process engineer, the following programs are most applicable:

  • Chemical Engineering
  • Mechanical Engineering
  • Environmental Engineering
  • Civil Engineering

In order to work as a process engineer, you must be registered and licensed as a Professional Engineer with your provincial association. Requirements for professional status vary among provinces.

Role Models

Francois Tremblay

François Tremblay was 12 years old when he first learned about the job of an engineer. It was then that he began listening to his neighbour, a chemical engineer, tell stories about his days at the local chemical plant. "I remember thinking to myself that it was the coolest job ever.” At the time, François had just discovered chemistry thanks to the chemistry set his parents had given him. "I loved making smoke and making liquids change colours.” Ten years later, François completed a Bachelor’s Degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Sherbrooke. Today, François is a process engineer with Fluor Canada, an engineering company, working on a project-to-project basis.

His time is divided between the field and the office depending on what stage the project is at. Currently, François is in a management position, completing the construction phase of the Ultra-Low Sulfur Diesel Project at the Shell refinery in Montreal. The purpose of the project is to remove sulfur (a pollutant) from diesel fuel as part of new federal government environmental regulations. More than 600 workers are involved in building the process unit. During the project’s design phase, François worked in Fluor’s Calgary office. His days were filled with meetings with the client and working with the project’s team of ten chemical engineers.

His job duties included sketching designs of the processing equipment and interacting with drafters to realize those designs. He also calculated pump sizes, distillation column lengths, and other equipment measurements. Plus he helped develop the safety mechanisms for the chemical process to protect against a potentially disastrous accident. "Our job was to look at how we are going to make this chemical process as efficient and safe as possible for both the workers at the refinery and the environment.” In February 2005, with the project’s design phase complete, François moved into the construction phase, and from Calgary to Shell’s Montreal refinery.

Now that he is in the field, he’s focusing more on the implementation of his designs. "I’m here to oversee and ensure things get built according to my team’s designs.” Sometimes there are problems with the construction of the designs, so François must be on hand to offer solutions. Until February 2006, he will work with the construction engineers to build the new equipment. According to François, the primary drawback of his work is the long hours. While at the site, he’s working 10 hours a day six days a week. "We are all working hard trying to meet the deadline for the new federal government ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel regulation.” However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. "When this project’s done, I will be proud to say I built that to help lower emissions and protect the environment.”

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