Job Descriptions of Mechanical Engineers and Solar Power Engineer

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Mechanical engineering is a very broad discipline. It is concerned with mechanical design, heat transfer, energy conversion, fuel combustion technology, noise control and acoustics, robotic controls, solar energy, and other technical impacts on society. Mechanical engineers focus on the forces that convert natural energy into practical uses by studying the motion of gases, liquids, and solids, and the heating and cooling of objects. They use the basic building blocks of the combustion of matter, interaction of materials, and transfer of energy to design everything from robots, computers, automobiles, and airplanes, to power plants, furnaces, and solar energy cells.

Because mechanical engineering is such a broad engineering discipline, extending across many interdependent specialties, the work of individual engineers is highly specialized. Specialties include, among others, applied engineering, design engineering, heat transfer, power plant engineering, underwater technology, aerospace engineering, bionics, and plastics engineering. These engineers tackle a multitude of environmental science problems including ways to dispose of nuclear waste, design earthquake proof structures, design space stations and underwater structures, and harness alternative forms of energy.

The development of solar energy is one particularly important area of energy development that mechanical engineers have been investigating. In this developing sub field, which has received progressively more funding by the federal government during the past few years and a renewed interest by private industry, these engineers are called solar power engineers. Each year, the sun sends toward earth 30,000 times as much energy as is used by the entire world's industries. Harnessing this energy has proved to be a challenge because the solar cells used to collect the sun's rays have been very inefficient, and the cost of using solar technology is higher than conventional sources. Because it is not cost competitive, solar technology has not been adopted on a large-scale basis. During the past several years however, mechanical engineers have made strides in building a more efficient and cheaper solar cell. Recently, a silicon-based cell has been developed that is twice as efficient as its predecessors and can be mass produced at a low cost. There are several large-scale solar power generation stations in the United States where solar power engineers are experimenting with ways to collect and distribute this free, unlimited, and nonpolluting energy source. As oil and coal reserves diminish and the nuclear power industry proves to be too costly and unreliable, the need to more fully develop solar power is becoming apparent.

Educational Requirements

The minimal educational requirement for a career as a mechanical engineer is a bachelor of science degree in engineering. More than 390 schools offer degrees in engineering, and a large number of these institutions offer a specialty degree in mechanical engineering. An engineer trained in one branch of the field can, however, easily work in another area. In addition, some college graduates in physics or mathematics may be qualified to work as mechanical engineers because many of the principles of engineering are rooted in these disciplines.

In a typical four-year engineering program, classes during the first two years include mathematics, physics, chemistry, introduction to computing, principles of mechanical engineering, and social science and humanities courses. During the final two years, students take more specialized engineering courses, such as mechanics and thermodynamics, electromagnetic fields, heat transfer, fluid dynamics, and energy conservation. Laboratory experience is very important because it provides students with the practical application of their scientific concepts. In addition, computers are used extensively throughout the engineering curriculum.

Schools sometimes stress specific specialties within the field; students with specific interests should investigate curriculums carefully before selecting a college. Some schools offer a general engineering curriculum where students are not able to choose a concentration until reaching graduate school. In addition, some institutions offer a five-year master's degree program.

Related Professions
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  • Environmental Engineer

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  • Geophysicist
Graduate training is essential for engineering faculty positions but is not required for the majority of entry-level engineering positions. However, many engineers do obtain a master's degree to learn new technology, to broaden their education, or to enhance promotion opportunities. Many engineers are obtaining MBA degrees to advance to management and sales positions.
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