ASU IGERT SUN students visit Sandia National Lab to experience real-world energy challenges

Rows of concentrated solar powered mirrors at the National Solar Thermal Test Facility at Sandia National Lab.Rows of concentrated solar powered mirrors at the National Solar Thermal Test Facility at Sandia National Lab.

From April 8-9, 2014, a group of Arizona State University graduate students descended upon Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico to engage with current energy leaders and interact with new energy technologies. The ASU student group is part of the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship: Solar Utilization Network (IGERT SUN) program that seeks to train interdisciplinary PhD students in a number of solar energy conversion areas to tackle next-generation, global energy challenges through a wide range of perspectives. Learn more about the IGERT SUN Program here.

The IGERT SUN 2012 is the first six-student cohort to complete the five-year, $3 million NSF-funded program. The program requires six site visits as part of its coursework, and the site visits class is the final course in the two-year curriculum. The goal is to create a series of students who seek to address a variety of interdisciplinary energy issues—from technology to policy to the social implications of human energy use—in shifting from a fossil fuel-based society to one based on sustainable, renewable energy sources. This is achieved through practical application experiences in real-world energy scenarios where commercial, government, and national laboratory leaders are already facing these immediate challenges. The site visits currently span between a number of energy entities in Arizona and New Mexico.

ASU IGERT SUN students at Sandia National LabASU IGERT SUN students at Sandia National Lab

Sandia offered a unique opportunity for students to tour the national lab, to get an up close, hands-on view of Sandia’s multiple concentrated solar power (CSP) and solar furnace technologies as well as an inside look at research possibilities and resources available to national lab scientists and engineers, should they decide on a similar career path. The site visit also allowed Sandia to showcase some of its latest cutting-edge solar energy technologies, where students could witness the kinds of possibilities and potential research opportunities available to them upon graduation.

Sandia engineer, Charles Andraka, enjoyed the student interactions, “The students appeared to be genuinely excited to be here and were very engaged in the various visits,” he said. “The whole team was appreciative of the exposure to the many Sandia technologies. We often have groups, students or otherwise, who are primarily engineers. The diversity of backgrounds added to the dynamic discussions.”

The Arizona State University IGERT SUN program is just one of the ways ASU and Sandia are working together to confront renewable energy challenges. In August 2013, ASU and Sandia signed an MOU to collaborate on energy research, build educational energy programs and workforce development, and inform better energy policy. The IGERT SUN student visit is just one component of advancing these shared institutional goals.

IGERT SUN student interviews

During your visit to Sandia, what energy technology impressed you the most and seemed the most valuable to your research?

The lab spaces at the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies (CINT) impressed me the most, with their focus on nanoscale investigations of various interfaces. In particular, as a biochemist I am intrigued by the idea of using their technologies to investigate a single protein at a time. Seeing as their labs are free to use for those who have proposals approved by CINT, maybe I'll be able to use their technologies in my own research in the future! – Anna Beiler, Biochemistry (PhD)

There was a large focus on solar thermal at Sandia, and the power tower was the most impressive. The vast capability of the Microsystems Engineering Sciences and Applications (MESA) Complex’s Clean Room was astounding and potentially useful in my research. – James LeBeau, Electrical Engineering (PhD)

The energy technology that impressed me the most at Sandia was the "Sunshine to Petrol" project. The project utilizes a 2-3 story parabolic mirror that, basically, concentrates and focuses the solar irradiation to a small area to produce intense heat. The size of the parabolic dish was staggering, almost scary, but nonetheless, very cool. – Joseph Laureanti, Chemistry and Biochemistry (PhD)

I would have to say I was really excited by their integration of integrated circuits technology and micro-photovoltaics to make flexible cells. I can't wait to see them hit the market. In a more abstract way, I was pretty “wowed” by their work on quantum computing which is something I had never heard of before. It seems to be straight out of a science fiction novel. – Levi Straka, Environmental Engineering (PhD)

I found all the work conducted in Sandia impressive, but the technology I enjoyed hearing about most was microsystems enabled photovoltaics (MEPV). In the MEPV lab they create miniaturized solar cells that look like blue “glitter”. They actually refer to it as such. These tiny cells add extreme flexibility, are low weight, and reduce material costs yet have improved cell performance. This technology is easily portable and has applications in contoured structures, clothing, vehicles, buildings, homes and portable electronics. – Lisa Dirks, Environmental Life Sciences (PhD)

I've long been interested in solar thermal power so visiting the National Solar Thermal Test Facility (NSTTF) was really enjoyable for me. They've played a huge role in solar thermal research and development over the past few decades, which I had read about before but had never seen in person. It was good to learn about the experts and top-notch facilities available at Sandia. Besides the solar thermal work, the more systems-level and market-oriented analytical work also interested me. – Miles Brundage, Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology (PhD)

What is the broader significance of your research and how does being an IGERT SUN student help define that?

I would broadly describe the significance of my research as an interesting and novel area of fundamental science pointed at helping meet the terawatt challenge. Without intelligent, curious, and helpful people to collaborate with, diversity carries little value. IGERT, however, has put me in a team of creative and interesting people researching creative and interesting things, and this has spilled over into my own research. Getting to be a part of their lives in and out of the classroom, and learning about areas of science different than my own, has helped broaden my understanding of the true challenges of meaningful research. – James LeBeau

I am looking at catalysis in general and how we can learn and apply lessons from what nature has done to create efficient catalysts. The best part about being an IGERT SUN student is that I get an exposure to so many diverse fields that I would not have had the ability to otherwise. I'm not an engineer by any means, but after two years of sitting face-to-face with a room full of engineers, I feel I have picked up a broader set of skills as well as an increased technical vocabulary that will hopefully enable me to be more competitive, relevant, and knowledgeable in the field of renewable energy and science in general. – Joseph Laureanti

Anthropogenic carbon dioxide is probably the largest environmental threat of our era. The energy challenge that I focus on is transportation fuels or hydrocarbon fuels. Microalgae have the potential to be the next big transportation fuel source while being carbon neutral due to their ability to capture the sun's energy and sequester carbon dioxide. In the near term, they have a lot of potential in commodity chemicals, animal feed, and nutraceuticals which would have their own value but could also be lower carbon impact. This all hinges on the ability for us to efficiently and inexpensively grow them. I'd say the best thing about being in the IGERT is the breadth I get to the field of solar energy capture. This happens through lots of avenues including these site visits, meeting a lot of good people in solar energy during our journal clubs, and just having a close knit group of students with common goals but very different focuses. With my research it's easy to be very focused and not see the larger picture. – Levi Straka

My research is a piece of the renewable energy puzzle. We still need liquid fuels and algae/cyanobacteria are considered to be a biofuel feedstock that doesn’t compete with food or agricultural land. It also can grow in waste water and have bioremediation purposes. Algae and cyanobacteria also can create a wealth of other products like isoprene, bioplastics, hydrogen, nutraceuticals and other fine chemicals. [As IGERT SUN students] we were provided with high caliber learning opportunities and contacts over a range of technologies and disciplines. This has helped us understand our research in context and the complexity of the energy system. It has helped make us more saleable post- graduation due to our increased knowledge and skill in a realm of areas. – Lisa Dirks

What energy challenges are most important to you and how do you plan to work toward them after graduating from the IGERT SUN program?

Overall I'm interested in how biological systems harvest and direct the flow of electrons though enzymes and delicately tuned redox pathways, and being able to mimic those processes in artificial energy generation. I hope to post-doc in Europe in photosynthesis research, and eventually work at a national lab. – Anna Beiler

The energy challenge that is most important to me is the challenge of incorporating the already proven technologies that our various disciplines have produced to replace coal, oil, and natural gas. Even if we do develop adequate technologies for removing CO₂ from the atmosphere, we have an even bigger responsibility to eliminate energy resources that expel copious amounts of CO₂ to the atmosphere. Although visiting Sandia has made me contemplate a future working at a national lab, I would ultimately like to pursue a post-doc position after graduation – Joseph Laureanti

Everyone interacts with various energy technologies on a daily basis. However, as events like blackouts show, we can't assume they'll always be reliable. My research is about how energy technologies and their adoption in the market may change in the coming decades and what we should do about it. As a social scientist, I want to better understand what is driving the adoption of solar energy worldwide and how it is affecting people's lives. – Miles Brundage

Anna Beiler, Biochemistry (PhD), Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, is currently working on immobilizing proteins on electrodes in a stable and oriented configuration, which she hopes to be able to use in enzymatic biofuel applications.

James LeBeau, Electrical Engineering (PhD), Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, is currently researching laser machining of silicon and other semiconductors targeted toward reduction in wavered semiconductor price. After graduating from the IGERT SUN program, LeaBeau hopes to work in industry focused around laser or semiconductor processing.

Joseph Laureanti, Chemistry and Biochemistry (PhD), Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, is currently researching immobilizing an inorganic-catalyst in a protein environment to study the effects a protein environment can induce on catalysis for hydrogen production. Laureanti would like to pursue a post-doc position after graduation

Levi Straka, Environmental Engineering (PhD), School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. His current research is in the growth kinetics and mathematical modeling of cyanobacteria. He is working to develop a photobioreactor design that will harvest and cultivate cyanobacteria while also preforming mathematical modeling of the system.

Lisa Dirks, Environmental Life Sciences (PhD), School of Life Sciences, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, is currently working in a lab that genetically modifies cyanobacteria to produce biodiesel. After completion of her doctoral degree, Dirks would like to work in industry or policy with a multidisciplinary focus on sustainable energy.

Miles Brundage, Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology (PhD), School of Life Sciences, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, is currently researching societal aspects of energy transitions and solar energy. Brundage is still determining what he will do after graduation, but he currently enjoys the opportunity to learn from the other IGERT SUN students, as well as the faculty and visiting lecturers.