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What Is Petroleum Engineering?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 17 November 2016
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Petroleum engineering is the science of extracting and refining fossil fuels. This complex field blends knowledge of geology, mathematics, computer science, and engineering to create the conditions and requirements for oil and natural gas drilling. Petroleum engineers may work in a variety of different jobs, from geology-based scouting to enhancing safety techniques for workers.

Fossil fuels mostly develop deep within the earth, created through a process that combines the right type of organic materials with immense amounts of heat, time, and pressure. While some oil sources may seep to the surface, extracting oil and natural gas from the Earth generally requires the use of many different engineering techniques to reach the oil and speed the flow of extraction. In addition to on-site work at oil and gas wells, the principles of petroleum engineering are also applied to the development and maintenance of refineries and processing plants, to ensure that the oil is properly handled and safety hazards are minimal.

In the scouting stage, a petroleum engineer is responsible for finding and testing new sites for extraction. This area of engineering requires a thorough understanding of geology as well as engineering, and is critical to the development of new oil wells. Using rock samples, measurements, and chemical tests, petroleum engineers are critical in determining the placement of exploratory wells.

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In addition to finding oil fields, petroleum engineering is primarily responsible for the design and implementation of extraction machinery and methods. Using the geological data, an engineer must determine the best way to reach the oil source, how to increase the flow of oil to the pipeline, and what inherent risks are present that must be counteracted through safety measures. Since oil may be found buried under hard rock, deep in the sea, or under fragile coastal waters, petroleum engineers must be able to adapt existing machinery and processes to meet each new challenge.

Enhancing recovery potential is an important part of petroleum engineering. The natural seepage rate of an oil source is generally not enough to sustain large-scale extraction, meaning that engineers must find ways to increase access and flow. This is often accomplished by injecting the oil source with another material, such as air, or water, or even using explosions to speed up the process. Since all of these methods entail some risk, engineers must also continually work to improve safety methods and mechanism to lower the risk of a spill or explosion.

Petroleum engineering is typically a well-paid profession, but requires significant training time. Engineers typically spend between five to ten years in college, pursuing mathematics, engineering, and scientific degrees. Some universities, particularly those in high oil-producing regions, offer advanced degrees specifically designed to turn out qualified petroleum engineers. With oil resources growing scarce, talented engineers are needed to help find additional sources and improve extraction techniques to access oil in ever-more difficult locations.

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