A degree in mechanical engineering followed by a post-graduation in thermal engineering is a good option for students interested in the power sector.

I was in my office one day reviewing plant data from a refinery, which was having problems with the boilers when the phone rang.

It was my friend Raghu who said that his daughter Priya had been called for counselling for admission to an engineering institution.

Raghu, a finance specialist, wanted my suggestions on what branch of study Priya should opt for. Raghu said, “Her friends are opting for the run-of-the-mill courses — electronics, IT, computer science — but I am concerned after seeing recent newspaper reports about the possible stagnation of growth in the IT industry.” I said, “Let her go for mechanical engineering.”

But, Raghu was shocked. He was under the impression that mechanical engineers spent most of their time in some dingy workshops, and that they had to supervise tough-looking workers. So, he thought that girls were not suited for this branch of engineering.

I told Raghu, “Mechanical engineering is a basic course, after which you can go for other options.. After completing a degree in mechanical engineering, a post-graduate course in any subject such as aeronautics, metallurgy, material science, electrical engineering, computer science or power engineering can be pursued. Many engineers who have done a basic degree in mechanical engineering have become computer scientists, rocket scientists, management consultants, nano technologists, power plant equipment manufacturers, and so on.”

Analysing prospects

In India, the power sector is expected to grow, and mechanical engineers with specialisation in the power sector will be in demand.

Boilers, which use fossil fuels to generate steam, are the main workhorses in any power plant. Boilers generating steam for power or some process are also found in every refinery, chemical plant, sugar plant, power plant, cogeneration plant, process plant, cement plant, etc.

During the summer break, one can intern with a boiler manufacturing company (Tiruchi and Pune have several boiler manufacturing companies) to learn about boiler design and its manufacturing aspects.

One can specialise in boiler design, power plant design, steam turbine design, power plant cycle analysis, solar energy or bio mass plants. In any case, after completing a post-graduate degree in thermal engineering, one can join a boiler manufacturing company (such as BHEL, Thermax) or consulting company such as Engineers India, Larsen and Toubro, Tata Consulting Engineers or join a refinery, petrochemical plant or any power or process plant, where there are numerous boilers in operation.

As these are specialised courses, finding a suitable job will not be difficult.

Many power plants, chemical plants or refineries built decades ago are operating their boilers at a low efficiency.

Therefore, energy efficiency improvement is a concern and the need of the hour, as fossil fuel costs are soaring. An engineer can also put to good use his/her programming skills and develop software for performance analysis of the power plant or the boilers and see how plant efficiency can be improved. So, it is not necessarily a job which requires you to run up or down a coal-fired power plant and dirty your hands.

It could be a job where one evaluates the performance of the power plant equipment or suggests steps to the management for improving the plant efficiency.

One can also consider joining a consulting firm or a boiler manufacturer, where he/she could be involved in sales, making proposals, meeting potential clients, and so on.

The writer is a boiler consultant from Chennai and can be contacted at v_ganapathy@yahoo.com