The Repair-It Engineer Who Digs Up Knowledge To Repair the Planet

The Repair-It Engineer Who Digs Up Knowledge To Repair the Planet

When Samantha (Sam) Reese moved from snowy Montana to bikini-clad Los Angeles, California, her classmates on the California Institute of Expertise had one huge query about her rural upbringing.

“Did you journey a horse to highschool?” they requested—greater than as soon as.

“No,” Reese would reply. “Did you?”

Picture from Sam Reese, NREL; graphic by Tara Smith, NREL.

Reese grew up close to Montana’s Glacier Nationwide Park. At the moment, the blue-collar city was busy with timber and aluminum. (In the present day, it’s a ritzy romp for ski bums, akin to Colorado’s Aspen or Vail.) Reese didn’t journey a horse to highschool—nor did she did develop up within the 1800s—however she did velocity round on a snowmobile any probability she acquired.

“They’re the largest lemon machines ever,” Reese mentioned. “They break incessantly. And you could possibly solely journey it if you happen to may repair it.” So, she mounted it, together with anything that broke.

However when Reese grew up and left dwelling, she left that fix-it world and located one obsessive about substitute. Because the nation’s financial system took off and costs dropped, most individuals selected to throw damaged issues away and purchase new ones. However over time, that fast repair—which comes with quick and soiled manufacturing and swelling landfills—began to fracture the planet.

“Now, we’re like, ‘Let’s save the Earth,’ and we’re going again to repair it,” Reese mentioned.

Fixing issues—like snowmobiles but in addition extra amorphous beasts, resembling manufacturing processes and international provide chains—occurs to be Reese’s specialty. As a senior engineer and analyst on the U.S. Division of Power’s Nationwide Renewable Power Laboratory (NREL), she places clear vitality in context, analyzing, for instance, how you can manufacture photo voltaic panels with out emitting an excessive amount of carbon, whether or not coal-dependent communities may make photo voltaic panels as an alternative, and the way a lot vitality our web superhighway may gobble up as we amass extra knowledge and display time.

“Generally what we have a look at is unexciting,” Reese mentioned. “But it surely’s actually vital to have the analytics.”

In NREL’s newest Manufacturing Masterminds Q&A, Reese shares why Los Angeles was a much bigger tradition shock than Southeast Asia, how she is guaranteeing clear vitality applied sciences are as clear as doable, and why she is sharing her “fix-it” mindset together with her children.

Once you began faculty on the California Institute of Expertise, what was it like transferring from rural Montana to Los Angeles?

In some methods, I had extra of a tradition shock than a number of the worldwide college students that come from metropolitan areas. I used to be like, ‘Oh my gosh, that is insane. Individuals put on bikinis in December.’ Northwest Montana may be snowy from July to June.

After faculty, the place did you go subsequent?

I needed to determine between graduate college and a job. I acquired a job as a result of—I’m going to be trustworthy—Ph.D.s didn’t pay then what they pay now, and I used to be actually uninterested in being poor. So, I acquired a job working for a telecom firm within the Bay Space. I used to be a product engineer, so I labored with engineers to transition merchandise from analysis and growth to manufacturing at our services in Malaysia and Thailand.

Three people in masks and head-to-toe personal protective gear posing for the camera.

Sam Reese (entrance, heart) grew up in a small, blue-collar city in Montana. Later, she ended up touring all around the world for her work, and but, the largest tradition shock she skilled was in Los Angeles. Picture from Sam Reese, NREL.

Wow! If Los Angeles was a tradition shock, what was Southeast Asia like?

For me, there was such a stark distinction from Montana to Los Angeles. Los Angeles was basically international to me; it was a really arduous transition. When you’re a world scholar, there are buildings in place that can assist you with the tradition transition. I feel we typically take without any consideration how various the USA may be. Transitioning from Los Angeles to Southeast Asia was not as stunning.

So, you traveled throughout Asia, however you ended up going again to highschool for a graduate diploma, proper?

After a 12 months or two, it grew to become obvious that I used to be going to be restricted if I didn’t get a complicated diploma, and I knew the longer I waited the more durable it might be to return. I went to Yale College for my grasp’s and acquired a job at a metrology firm. I spent loads of time in Japan and Korea and labored my method towards a grasp’s.

How did you find yourself at NREL, then?

When my now-husband completed his Ph.D., he needed to come back to NREL, so we moved to Colorado, and I acquired a job working for an information storage firm. I used to be the fix-it engineer. When one thing broke, I’d exit within the subject and repair it. I acquired to journey all around the world there. But it surely was not an excellent job to have with children. Handing over the child to the husband and being like, “I’m gone for the subsequent week,” was not workable and made him very unhappy.

However the timing was good as a result of NREL had simply been awarded the Clean Energy Manufacturing Analysis Center, a digital heart centered on bottom-up price modeling and clear vitality manufacturing. They have been searching for folks from trade, so I utilized, and right here I’m.

And you’ve got been right here eight years! What have you ever been as much as?

I work on a broad spectrum of know-how, from combustion engines to semiconductors. Most of my funding comes from what I now affectionately name “the artist previously generally known as AMO” as a result of the U.S. Division of Power’s Superior Manufacturing Workplace break up into the Industrial Efficiency & Decarbonization Office and Advanced Materials & Manufacturing Technologies Office.

There’s one mission I’m particularly enthusiastic about the place we seemed on the embodied carbon (the full quantity of carbon dioxide emitted via manufacturing) of two sorts of photo voltaic panels: silicon and cadmium telluride. We discovered that manufacturing cadmium telluride modules emits about half as a lot carbon as silicon modules. And if you happen to manufacture modules in a natural-gas-rich grid, that’s two occasions much less embodied carbon than a coal-rich grid.

Wow. That may be a big distinction.

However we took it a step additional and put this by way of the carbon funds, the full remaining carbon that we are able to generate to keep away from going 2 extra levels Celsius in warming. To fulfill our decarbonization objectives, experts believe we need to deploy 75 terawatts of solar panels by 2050. If we have been to make these 75 terawatts utilizing a coal-rich grid and silicon know-how, we’d devour 17% of our remaining carbon funds. Now, that’s to not say we shouldn’t do silicon. It exhibits that decarbonizing our manufacturing grid is essential and additional analysis may assist us decrease the embodied carbon of photo voltaic panels. Inexperienced know-how is wonderful and superior, however you additionally must decarbonize it.

Fourteen people standing or squatting to pose for a photo in front of a stone building.

Now, at NREL, Sam Reese (in entrance, third from the suitable) is working to repair carbon (pun supposed). When requested which fictional character she can be, Reese mentioned, “Scotty from Star Trek. He simply fixes it.” Picture from Sam Reese, NREL.

It appears like you might be centered extra on the sensible aspect of unpolluted vitality tech.

Sure, I’m 100% sensible. NREL has been transferring increasingly more towards sensible deployment, which presents challenges after we attempt to publish. It’s nearly too sensible for lots of journals.

You’d assume the sensible aspect, how you can make our objectives occur, can be a core a part of this work.

Proper. The U.S. Division of Power’s manufacturing places of work have at all times operated on this bizarre house the place they’re neither pure analysis nor pure deployment. They’re attempting to bridge that hole.

Are you able to share a couple of extra examples of this gap-bridging type of work?

We just lately realized that tumbler, a giant a part of photo voltaic panels, is a large piece of our carbon footprint. We’re trying on the web superhighway—not knowledge facilities or private units, as a result of these are very well-understood, however how a lot vitality do you want for the freeway between the 2? There’s work on the supply-chain world of stuff, like microchips; we really feel like individuals are overlooking resistors, which price about four-thousandths of a penny. However with out a resistor, a $200 microchip doesn’t work. And we’re attempting to construct an electrical airplane engine. How cool is that? Are you able to think about all-electric, silent airplanes?

In the USA, it looks like many of us don’t usually assume a lot about manufacturing—how they get all their stuff.

We don’t. However about March 2020, my work grew to become very talked-about. When folks go to the grocery retailer to get their cereal or eggs and so they’re not out there, they begin to consider provide chains much more.

It’s type of a bummer that it takes a significant disaster, like items shortages or local weather change, to get people to concentrate.

Possibly. Having come from Montana, I feel we typically get caught on attempting to be proper versus simply transferring towards a shared purpose. When you ask somebody if they need clear water, clear air, and a vibrant outdoor, you will get extra buy-in than if you happen to use the time period “local weather change.”

A selfie of Sam, her husband, and her two children in the woods.

Reese’s husband, seen right here with Reese and their two kids, additionally works at NREL, and his picture pops up on posters hung up all around the laboratory. “My children crack me up as a result of they are saying, ‘Daddy’s well-known as a result of his face is on the wall. However Mommy is the one who fixes all the pieces,’” Reese mentioned. Picture from Sam Reese, NREL.

Talking of Montana, you might be sharing your fix-it mindset along with your kids now, proper?

We combine them into any initiatives we’re doing. For our dwelling rework, they eliminated the entire lavatory flooring. My son is hooked on a well-liked TV present the place folks battle their robots. He treats his toys like they’re battle robots, which, in fact, leads to them breaking, and he takes them aside to determine what occurred. I’m enthusiastic about getting all folks into science, know-how, engineering, and arithmetic (or STEM), however I put somewhat additional effort into attempting to get ladies and women into STEM. So, I guarantee that it’s not simply my son fixing issues however my daughter, too.

That may be a good segue into the final query. What recommendation would you give to the subsequent technology of engineers?

Choices don’t pigeonhole you. I’ve labored in 4 completely different industries. Being intellectually curious and keen to study is an important factor. I’m not saying you shouldn’t plan, however you don’t need to commit for 40 or 60 years, which might result in resolution paralysis, proper?

For ladies, issues are altering quickly. I’ve an image of me at a 1,000-person convention I attended once I first began out. There have been about six of us ladies. That’s not true anymore; there are increasingly more ladies in these fields, particularly in renewable vitality applied sciences. COVID additionally uncovered the world to the calls for of households. Partially due to that, STEM is changing into extra welcoming. All people talks about impostor syndrome. All of us assume we’re impostors. You’re not alone. Let it go, similar to the “Frozen” music says, and do the very best you possibly can.

Desirous about constructing a clear vitality future? Read other Q&As from NREL researchers in superior manufacturing, and browse open positions to see what it’s prefer to work at NREL.


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