Thermal engineer showing data on his computer to another person

What is a thermal engineer?

A thermal engineer is a role that involves designing solutions to remove unwanted heat from a process or maintain very specific thermal conditions within a process.

What does a thermal engineer do?

Thermal engineers use their expertise in the principles of thermodynamics to design heating and cooling systems. They ensure the heat transfer is appropriate to achieve the desired result and is also efficient. It’s a sub-discipline of mechanical engineering.

Some modern companies may not have a specific thermal engineer role. Instead, their engineers rely upon software to help design an economical solution.

Also known as: Thermal Mechanical Engineer

Related to:  Mechanical Engineer

Promoted to: Senior Thermal Engineer

Where does a thermal engineer work?

A thermal engineer could work in many industries including, heat exchanger manufacturing, automotive, HVAC, and military engineering. Industrial heat transfer occurs in systems as small as a microcomputer or as big as a power generator, so an expert in thermodynamics is needed in many industries.

Large industrial processes include pulp and paper production, and oil refining. All of these situations will require the expertise of a thermal engineer to manage temperature critical processes.

The automotive industry also employs thermal engineers. Engines generate waste heat that needs to be cooled by a heat exchanger. The professional who makes the calculations to ensure efficient cooling and oversees testing of the results, is a thermal engineer.

Another very common industry to find a thermal engineer is HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning). Naturally, this industry is fundamentally about heat transfer, specifically maintaining comfort conditions in a room. However, HVAC is a widely understood industry with limited temperature requirements and wide tolerance. There are limited challenges for an expert thermal engineer to tackle in a typical HVAC company.

On the other hand, the most ‘exciting’ industries for a thermal engineer presently are

  • semiconductors/microprocessors (think space and electrical cars),
  • aerospace,
  • military,
  • food/beverage,
  • and, medical.

The most challenging applications involve a change of state (solid, liquid, gas) within complex mixtures of chemicals.

Most industrial operations need energy of some type (mechanical, chemical or electrical) to function, and where energy is converted, there is often waste heat. When machines overheat, they break or operate inefficiently (and waste money).

As such, heat transfer is everywhere, and thermal engineers are likewise found in many industries. Only the sophistication of the product and the expert thermal aptitude will vary.

What do thermal engineers do?

The job description of a typical thermal engineer usually includes most or all of the following:

  1. Calculate heat transfer for different mediums and in different scenarios
  2. Advise types of cooling, heating, insulation, etc. required for a particular project or system
  3. Designing heat exchangers including evaporators, coolers, heaters, radiators and condensers using CAD toolsThermal engineer showing data on his computer to another person
  4. References project specifications, industry codes and norms, safety issues, electrical requirements, and other factors to ensure designs comply with regulations.
  5. Checks that systems built meet thermal transfer specifications and, if they do, approve the designs of other engineers.
  6. Selecting appropriate materials and components with consideration towards corrosion, acoustics, as well as thermal transfer.
  7. Analyses existing processes that involve heat transfer to determine where they can be improved and made more cost-effective
  8. Communication with stakeholders and other engineering staff
  9. Management of engineering personnel, budget and deadlines

Thermal engineers tend to be more theoretical. They don’t necessarily need a strong real-world perspective to perform their job well.

Day in the life of a thermal engineer

A thermal engineer spends most of their time either in an office working at their computer, making calculations and designing components and systems or with clients honing the ideal solution.

Sterling Thermal Technology's configuratorThe tools a thermal engineer uses might include Ansys (software for simulating cooling) and ASPEN (software for simulating fluid dynamics), among many others.

Depending on their current project, the engineer may have to travel on-site to the location of the heat transfer system to inspect various aspects of the equipment.

But it is essential to know that not everything a thermal engineer does involves thermal engineering. At Sterling Thermal Technology, a typical project involves understanding client requirements, calling upon experience to broadly develop a solution, using software to finesse the design, and then producing an attractive offer.

A thermal engineer reports directly to the applications manager. They will likely have to communicate with a range of other people, including other engineers and project managers.

What qualifications are needed to become a thermal engineer

Thermal engineering is a discipline deeply rooted in natural science and mathematics. Naturally, the knowledges desired in a thermal engineer are also heavy on science and calculation, such as chemical engineering.

A thermal engineer, of course, needs a strong education in heat transfer. Bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering and chemical engineering should include an appropriate level of knowledge on the subject. Understanding fluid dynamics is also essential, as the medium through which heat is transferred is often a fluid or a gas.

However, thermal experience alone is not sufficient. Chemical engineering or mechanical engineering would be the sort of subjects that make for a highly skilled thermal engineer.

Note that at Sterling Thermal Technology, we centre our thermal engineering resource on experience and aptitude, although a formal qualification is also desirable.

What principles does a thermal engineer use in their work?

The various ways thermal energy can move through the world is a complex topic governed by the laws of thermodynamics.

Some of the most important principles are:

  • Heat Conduction: heat is transferred between two surfaces that are in contact
  • Heat Convection: the particular way that heat moves in a fluid
  • Thermal Radiation: heat that travels in electromagnetic radiation (e.g. light)

Finding work as a thermal engineer

Thermal engineering is a discipline with extensive job opportunities across many industries. The career outlook for thermal engineers is very positive. This is unlikely to change: industries will always need thermodynamic expertise to make their technology function or perform more efficiently.

At Sterling TT, we design heat exchangers, so thermal engineering is fundamental to our business. You can find out more about working with Sterling TT by visiting our Careers page. We look forward to hearing from you.