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Wanted: Energy Innovators

January 23, 2009

Photo of a young man leaning on a railing in front of a brown building. Mountains are in the background.

Biofuels Analyst David Hsu's interest in renewable energy and making a difference attracted him to NREL.
Credit: Heather Lammers

Unlike many workplaces today, NREL is growing. Driving this growth is the critical need to find clean energy solutions for the nation and the world. While NREL has been pursuing this mission for its entire 32-year history, the need for clean energy technologies is more urgent than ever. NREL is at the forefront of developing energy solutions and delivering innovative technologies to the marketplace.

To meet these challenges, NREL is staffing up and looking for scientists, engineers, analysts and other energy innovators.

Biofuels analyst David Hsu, 33, left the semiconductor industry in Oregon 18 months ago and moved here with his wife to join NREL, and now they have a 13-month old daughter. caught up with David on a warm and sunny Inauguration Day outside the Field Test Laboratory Building. As we spoke at a picnic bench overlooking Jefferson County Open Space and the Front Range, two of his co-workers played Frisbee in their shirtsleeves during their lunch break.

Tell us about your job here at NREL.

I'm an analyst in the energy analysis group. I do technical, economic and sustainability examinations of the potential of different biofuel sources and conversion processes. I look at processes that can be used to make cellulosic ethanol and answer the question "Is this process technically and economically feasible?" and "Can it help us reach the nation's biofuels targets by 2022?" Each feedstock has its own technological, economic and sustainability challenges. The technological and economic challenges are closely related – you might be able to overcome the challenges that a feedstock presents in terms of its structure. But if you can't do it in a cost-efficient way at an industrial scale, then it really is of no value to the fuel supply. Mainly I work on the computer. We use software that all chemical engineers know about and Excel spreadsheets with economic and financial assumptions that will get you to a cost per gallon.

How did you end up working for NREL?

I grew up in the Chicago area. I went to college at MIT and graduate school at Berkeley. So I have lived all over the country. I actually started my career in the semiconductor industry. The semiconductor industry changes very quickly, but it's really about making the same thing smaller and faster, and I found it was actually very repetitive. I wanted to come to Colorado, and I was interested in the environment and renewable energy. It's very challenging technically. I wasn't referred to the lab by anyone; I learned more about NREL online. I've been here now for a year and a half.

Photo of hands top and bottom with the straw like corn stover in between.

Corn stover—everything but the kernels—is one of the feedstocks NREL researchers are working with to make biofuels economically from non-food biomass.
Credit: Pat Corkery

Tell me more about your coworkers.

I work in a group of fewer than 10 people. Much of what I do begins with my own work on the computer, but it is always helpful to get their feedback. I find that everyone I work with is very bright, friendly and technically competent.

How does NREL compare with your other jobs?

NREL is not exactly like industry or the university. We work on research, but it is based on issues related to fuels and transportation. But it's not like industry in that our work is not aimed at producing a specific product and so it is not profit-driven. In industry you don't get to work outside of the company very often. Here you can interact with others, attend conferences and publish papers.

What about the perks?

I wanted to live in Colorado because of the outdoor lifestyle. I love to snowboard. I like to go biking and hiking. Being here is ideal for that. Denver is not too big of a city, but it is big enough to support the cultural institutions and the sports teams.

What about the benefits?

NREL's benefits are good. They are about the same as in industry. When you are here for two years you get four weeks of vacation, and there aren't many places that offer that. Then there is the opportunity to work in renewable energy and help make a difference. When I tell people I'm at NREL everybody has an opinion and everybody has questions. You always can have a conversation because they are interested in what we are doing.

— Joseph B. Verrengia