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Engineering Green jobs in physics, environmental engineering, other sciences?

  1. Jun 25, 2012 #1

    I'm a rising junior undergraduate physics major and I'd like to get some kind of green job in physics, maybe in alternative energy. I was wondering what kind of options are out there. I switched majors a few times from theater to environmental science to physics and decided to stick with physics rather than envirosci because I felt I wasn't learned that much science in my environmental science course (you know, in a lot of our labs we were measuring how much energy people wasted, and putting up signs telling them to turn off their computer, something you could easily do in an ecology club that felt like a waste of time college level science course.) and I felt that physics would give me more flexibility.

    Anyway, I'm considering physics grad school, or maybe another science grad school and was wondering how I could combine my interest with physics with my interest in alternative energy. I don't really want to go into academia (at least as a full time professor), and don't have a high enough gpa (about a 3.1). I'm also considering taking some time off before going to graduate school . I've looked through web postings for physics jobs and most of them require a phd. I'm not really sure where to look for bachelor's level jobs in the green industry that undergraduate physics majors can do.

    As far as graduate schools go what kind of fields would lead to jobs in alternative energy? I've heard that both nuclear and plasma physicists are developing new forms of alternative energies but I don't know enough about these fields to know if I'd like to pursue them. I've done research so far in astrophysics and solid state physics but haven't learned much about other fields. I find astronomy interesting in theory but I'm not into the hours and hours of programming I need to do every day. I enjoy the experimental aspect of the solid state physics research I'm doing but find it less interesting in theory (although that may be partly because the books I'm reading on solid state discuss a lot of upper level quantuum mechanics ideas that I'm unfamiliar with.) Anyway experimental research in a field I like would be great, I'm just not sure which fields would allow me to go into alternative energy.
    Some engineering degrees also seem like they'd allow me to work in green industries. I've briefly looked into environmental engineering but it looks like its more involved with chemistry and biology than physics.Are there any environmental engineers here that can attest to that? I'm not sure if engineering is really for me or not since I hated both of the circuits classes I took and my professors tell me I have more of a scientists mentality than an engineers . However, I don't want to dismiss all engineering fields based on my experiences with circuitry alone and was wondering which ones would allow me to help the environment.)

    Also what kind of combined fields of physics/other science would land jobs in alternative energy? I've heard that geophysicists make a lot of contributions but I don't know much about their field. It seems to be a lot more geology than physics but I admit that I have a very shallow understanding of it. Would biophysicists be involved in green energy? So far I'm working a physics major, a math minor, and a history minor. I've taken a biology course(intro evolutionary biology) and an environmental science course. I love physics, put up with math and computer science, and am starting to miss the other sciences. I took chemistry in high school (with a pretty bad teacher) and have been watching some online videos to understand the basic ideas but really don't know much about it.

    Does anyone work in a "green industry"? What kind of field do you work in and what degree do you have?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 25, 2012 #2
    I'd suggest the MBA because technology isn't the issue, its getting funding for the technology. Today, there's millions of scientists around the world with ideas on how to solve the energy problem through both social and technological means, and all they need is funding. Getting an MBA helps the environment by getting funding to those who need it. It sure helps alot more than fusion research.
  4. Jun 25, 2012 #3
    A masters in business? That's an interesting suggestion. I've never thought about that before.
  5. Jun 26, 2012 #4
    Chill factor? What would the MBA be in?
  6. Jun 26, 2012 #5
    In my opinion, you should focus on figuring out what you like to do. Don't waste your time trying to find the area that can have the biggest impact, because if you hate the work or aren't any good at it, you won't end up doing much good.

    Have you tried to find a summer research position in some "green" area? If you have good grades and references you could apply for the SULI program at NREL. I went there and you definitely get exposed to a wide variety of renewable energy and energy efficiency research.
  7. Jun 27, 2012 #6
    Agreed. Even if the work you are best at doing never has anything to do with green energy, etc., you can always work green, promote working green, and live green. Some of us only contribute in our own little ways. It adds up.
  8. Jul 8, 2012 #7
    I'm in kind of the same boat as you. Went from philosophy to physics and then realized that I wanted to do something that would make an impact on human life, rather than musing away at abstract things. I have been doing research in an EE lab working on solar cell fabrication and physics, but find the experimental work testing, and the theory not interesting. Also, based on my observations, it seems like there is very little to no interest in the actual applications of the technology.

    I think getting an MBA would be a good move if you could see yourself doing that. I think another option, which I'm thinking of doing, is more grassroots development of simple technologies for energy/water conservation. Maybe for use in developing countries? Also could turn some of those technologies into businesses and be self employed. My plan is to travel during my year off to work on those ideas, then decide if I want to go to grad school.

    In short, it kind of seems like you wouldn't find a whole lot of satisfaction in physics grad school. At least from what I gather (which is not much, as I'm an undergrad), there is not a lot getting done that is directly helping people, so your best option might be either getting involved in some kind of internship to see if you like the work or switch fields (to business?). On the other hand, if you find a really good group, you might have just enough resources to work on original ideas that will impact people, without getting caught up in the professionally removed research world. IMO
  9. Jul 9, 2012 #8
    The other thing is that if you want to help the environment, you might consider going into "dirty energy." Making "dirty energy" somewhat less dirty is going to help the environment a lot, and you can often help the environment by just doing your job. If you are working on an offshore oil well which *doesn't* blow out, that can prevent a great deal of environment damage.
  10. Jul 9, 2012 #9
    What do you mean there's no interest in applications for the technology? I don't understand this really. If its a new technology, there's probably some sort of application it can be used in. I mean, OK, maybe the solar cell fabrication technology sucks for solar cells... but could it be used for something else?
  11. Jul 9, 2012 #10
    Actually, I find I like the abstract musing of physics. I just don't like the idea of a professional career in academia. This is a problem because I'm not that interested in fields that focus on technology. At least I've looked into EE and solid state physics, and neither of these really appeal to me. They seem like they have great applications, I just don't enjoy studying them. I enjoy the more abstract branches of physics more. For example I enjoy E and M, atomic physics, and Quantum mechanics much more than Analytical mechanics, optics, and circuitry which feel a little more down to earth. Physics is just more interesting to me the more imaginary it seems. However, I don't think I want to become a professor and am not sure what direction I want to go in.

    Working towards conservation efforts in developing countries sounds like it would be a great thing to do right after getting my bachelors degree. I'm not really sure how I would go about doing that though. I've never really considered owning my own business.

    I'm not really against going to grad school. I just want to go when I actually find something I want to study for 5-7 years. I don't want to go to grad school right away just to get the 2 year hazing ritual of the grad school classes/taing/research over with only to end up in a research field I'm not interested in. From what I've seen of the grad school environment (which I admit isn't that much), it seems like an enjoyable experience if you like who you're working with and what you're researching, but a mediocre to miserable experience if you don't.

    There's a lot pf pressure from some professors/older scientists to go to physics grad school asap before I decide not to. A lot of other professors/scientists say that they took a few years off and were much more focused and ready when they started grad school. I personally think a break would benefit me. I like learning about physics and doing research but get sick of the pretentious atmosphere and the overemphasis on academic achievement rather than professional skills that employers actually care about. I'm not sure if I want to go at all but it's not like my bachelor's degree goes away if I do something else for a while. I do want to do something worthwhile if I take some time off though. A job where I get to help the environment would be ideal. (although I am worried about finding any sort of job with just a b.s. in physics in this economy.)
  12. Jul 9, 2012 #11
    I've never heard of that program before but I'll look into it. I have pretty excellent references but only mediocre grades. How hard is that program to get into? Are there a lot of other programs like that? Are they all summer programs or are there research programs through the entire year?
  13. Jul 9, 2012 #12
    First, let me say, I agree with TwoFish-Quant. You will do orders of magnitude more for the earth by working in the dirty industries such as coal, Wastewater, Natural Gas drilling, and so on.

    I work on water and waste-water controls. This is as close to the action as anything gets. I program the controllers and help design processes that will clean up the water we use in our cities using the least amount of energy and chemicals as possible.

    But when you write "Green" I think you are looking to get in to some counter-culture research that will change the world. Good Luck with that. There are loads of very smart dreamers out there and virtually none of them manage to translate their research in to a successful product.

    Those who suggested an MBA aren't far from the mark. Let's assume you discover some incredible electrolyte that you can use to build a battery that can safely store energy with 90% efficiency. Great! Now you have to make money on it somehow. That takes business experience.

    For an idea of what these sorts of paradigm shifts are like read about what the last century of this stuff was like in The Power Makers by Maury Klein.

    And note that one of the most significant inventions actually came not from an engineer or a researcher, but a very savvy businessman who conceived the electric grid as we know it today.
  14. Jul 10, 2012 #13
    When I write green I mean that I would like to work towards something that would help create green energy and save the environment. I would like to learn more actual information from both sides of the picture but find that everything is so political that its difficult to find out any real information. For example I took an environmental science and technology course in college and we learned all about over-consumerism, climate change, modern agriculture, and green technologies. However, I found I learned little actual science in that class because it was at a level that non-science majors could understand. I would love to help the environment but I would like to learn more facts on how I can do that. Maybe the facts show that oil companies are investing in clean energy much more than anyone else and that would be the best way to help.

    A lot of ideas in the environmental science field are very political and based in philosophy rather than science. For example, many people are against Nuclear fusion, not because it's necessarily harmful for the environment, but because it has the word "nuclear" in it. Some people feel that people shouldn't be using much energy in the first place, and that we're destroying ourselves in doing so.I'm not saying that everyone is like that, but those ideas do get spread around. Now that I've been studying physics for a few years, I think about energy differently, and realize that much of the energy we obtain is simply lost through thermodynamic processes. It would be great to have a career that would help with that, whether I'm making "dirty energy" cleaner, improving the conductivity of materials, doing research in alternative energy, starting my own business, etc.

    In the end I'm going to go into a field that interests me, not whatever is the most helpful. I'd just like to know what my options are.

    That book you posted sounds really interesting. I might buy it :)
  15. Jul 10, 2012 #14
    One of the graduate students at my (physics) department just finished his PhD thesis on solar panel efficiency. He wrote most of his thesis while working full-time at an engineering job.

    I don't know what company it is or what they do exactly, but his thesis focused on numerical simulation of photon absorption. I think the goal was to maximize energy output without increasing cost by "tuning" quantum dots to specific light frequencies.
  16. Jul 10, 2012 #15
    this is a problem. that's because the main direct physics contribution to renewable energy, photovoltaics, is purely about solid state electronics.
  17. Jul 11, 2012 #16
    Hmm, what about the contributions to renewable energy: wind/geothermal/nuclear/biofuels. What do they have their basis in? I'm guessing many of these areas would need more engineers than physicists.
  18. Jul 12, 2012 #17
    to work on the first 3 at a research level requires strong knowledge of fluid mechanics. you don't take fluid mechanics (usually) in a physics curriculum. That's too bad because fluid mechanics is very hard and very different from the usual physics classes, conceptually if not mathematically.

    the last one is mostly biochemistry and chemical engineering, again with stuff physicists don't study like chemical kinetics. There might be some biophysics work in this however it is not the mainstream at all.

    most applied physics research is in optics and materials. Solar falls squarely into this bracket. The other 3, not so much. Sure, you might work on a new alloy that gets used in a windmill, but that alloy might be used in a lawn chair too and so doesn't really have anything directly to do with green energy.

    However there's very interesting things in physics going on about effects like thermoelectricity (using waste heat to generate electricity) or even triboelectricity (using "useless" friction to generate electricity). See these articles:


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