Photo courtesy of the U.S. Geological Service.

The job of physical scientist is a mid-level position in bioenergy, in the agriculture, life, and physical sciences career sub-sector. Job seekers with agriculture, life, and physical sciences backgrounds or a career in the sciences could consider this type of mid-level bioenergy job.

Physical scientists work under supervision to analyze environmental problems and develop plans to inform policymakers and regional planners on potential outcomes of bioenergy deployment. They also assist other environmental specialists to collect and compile environmental data from samples, conduct surveys, and gather other information to identify and assess the benefits and considerations of natural resources impacted by bioenergy. People in these positions may have careers in bioenergy physical science.

Physical Scientist

Alternate Title(s)

Chemist, Environmental Scientist, GIS Specialist, Hydrologist, Hydrogeologist, Water Resource Specialist, Soil Scientist, Soil Conservationist

Education & Training Level DescriptionMaster's degree in the Physical or Natural Sciences, Engineering, or a related field.
Experience3–7 years
Job Skills
  • Where applicable:
    • Strong background in soil science, soil chemistry and physics, agronomy, and plant physiology
    • Strong background in basic hydrological or hydrogeological principles
    • Experience with field instrumentation and techniques
    • Skill in use of computer-aided design (CAD) and drafting equipment for preparation of field construction drawings and/or blueprints
    • Skill in use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and prevalent  modeling techniques to map and analyze natural resources
    • Experience with applicable federal, state, and local rules, regulations, and policies governing the environment or natural resource management
    • Significant chemical laboratory experience.  
  • Demonstrated experience organizing, analyze, interpreting, and evaluating scientific data
  • Demonstrated experience communicating with key stakeholders in group settings and individual meetings.
Job Profile

Bioenergy crop production systems involve complex interactions with the physical environment in which these crops are grown. Plants require water resources and nutrients present in the soil for growth. The expansion of biomass production will require individuals with a thorough understanding of agricultural management practices that are not only economical for producers and growers but also sustain important physical components of the environment such as soil and water. Physical scientists can provide this expertise, using their knowledge of the earth, its components, and its processes to guide important land management decisions. They are also uniquely qualified to work along many other components of the bioenergy supply chain, as their knowledge of the chemical sciences has important applications for the sector’s engineering and manufacturing activities. As such, there are a broad range of pathways that they can follow. Examples of bioenergy related careers in the physical sciences include:

Chemical Scientists
To convert biomass into a biofuel, biomass must first be deconstructed into its component chemicals and then upgraded using various techniques to produce a finished product. There are a suite of chemical reactions that make this process possible and an understanding of the underlying mechanisms behind them is crucial. Chemists fill this essential role by conducting basic and applied research on chemical processes that are used for the production of bio-based fuels and chemicals. They can help understand, control, and optimize various important chemical reactions during biomass conversion or synthesize substances with specific chemical properties. Once the final product has been produced they can also test the quality of these manufactured goods, to ensure they meet industry specifications.

A key goal for the bioenergy industry is to enable the sustainable use of water resources throughout the supply chain, from the production of feedstock to its use in biorefineries. Freshwater is an irreplaceable and increasingly scarce resource, and competing needs for irrigation and domestic and industrial water uses demand careful resource planning and monitoring. Hydrologists, hydrogeologists, and water resource specialists study the potential impacts of bioenergy development on water resources and research ways to produce bioenergy feedstocks while also maintaining or improving water quality. They work both in modeling and in the field by collecting data from experiments in watersheds and field stations. They also study the potential to utilize reclaimed water and other non-traditional water sources for the production of biofuels and evaluate the water use efficiency of different processes and production pathways.

Soil Scientists
Maintaining soil health is a critical element of sustainable bioenergy systems. This includes ensuring that soil nutrients are not depleted by bioenergy cropping, that soil carbon levels are maintained at levels that are environmentally acceptable, that crop residues are harvested in sustainable quantities, and that the appropriate conservation practices are put in place to minimize erosion and leaching of soil and nutrients to water resources. Additionally, bioenergy resources will need to be grown so that they do not negatively impact wildlife. Soil scientists focus on providing stakeholders with recommendations based on research on how to protect natural resources. They are responsible for surveying, staking, information gathering, designing, engineering plan preparation, and construction inspections.

Environmental Scientists
Planning for bioenergy crop landscapes and related infrastructure will require individuals who understand how to minimize the environmental impact of these large-scale projects. Environmental Scientists apply their knowledge of the natural and physical sciences to provide guidance to land managers and business owners on how to minimize impact on the ecosystem and comply with regulations and policies. A common specialization within environmental science is geographic information systems—a discipline which focuses on the presentation, management and analysis of spatial or geographic data. The technical skills that this specialization covers such as spatial analysis, remote sensing, and statistical analysis are highly valuable when executing any geographic aspects of bioenergy planning.

At the middle levels, Physical Scientists work as staff specialists under the direction of senior management to help develop strategies and tools for producing biomass feedstocks while maintaining or enhancing soil quality and ecosystem services, as well as investigate opportunities for bioenergy crops to improve water quality. Individuals pursuing the chemical scientist route will also work alongside senior level scientists to help improve applicable chemical processes, develop novel bioproducts, and ensure the end product meets quality specifications. A masters's degree in the physical or natural sciences, or engineering (e.g. chemistry, hydrology, environmental science, soil science or agricultural sciences) is highly preferred. Equivalent experience or training may substitute for a masters degree.