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NREL Interns Look Toward the Future

September 19, 2014

Photo of a woman using lab equipment to look at a silicon wafer.

Intern Rekha Schnepf images the surface of a silicon wafer sample on an optical profilometer at the NREL's Science and Technology Facility. She was one of the 44 summer interns studying at NREL as part of the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) program.
Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

They come from diverse backgrounds and have varied plans for the future, but all have unique interests in renewable energy and energy efficiency—and a drive to leave the planet better than they found it. These common traits bring students from across the country to Colorado and the Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) for internships in clean energy research. 

"I'm really interested in solar energy and pursuing materials that can work with that," NREL intern Rekha Schnepf said. "Working here exposes me to a totally different research side from what I do at Carnegie Mellon University. It's just giving me more knowledge on what I can do in the solar cell field and how I can take my degree in different directions."

This summer, 44 interns arrived at NREL as part of the Energy Department's Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) program. These interns intend to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), and came to NREL with plans to research topics from genetic engineering to technologies for hydrokinetic turbines. The SULI program provides students opportunities to conduct research on a variety of projects at the Energy Department's cutting-edge facilities under the guidance of veteran scientists and researchers. Through this experience, interns and mentors alike gain invaluable knowledge and practice.

Schnepf is working toward a bachelor's degree in materials science and engineering. In her research at Carnegie Mellon, she works with transparent conductors; at NREL, she looked at a particular process used to cut silicon wafers for solar cells.

"The interns bring a fresh perspective and energy into the lab, and their research accomplishments are amazing for the short amount of time that they are here," NREL Education Programs Manager Linda Lung said. "The SULI experience changes academic and career goals for a lot of interns, and then some become advocates for renewable energy and energy efficiency."

Photo of a man working on laptop computer as another man looks over his shoulder. Enlarge image

SULI intern Spencer Lindeman, front, works with NREL Scientist David Robichaud to investigate the fundamental chemistry of lignin pyrolysis at NREL's Field Test Laboratory Building. Once he leaves NREL, Lindeman will take a year to work and apply for graduate programs to continue his studies in biochemistry.
Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

Spencer Lindeman, a recent graduate of Brigham Young University with a bachelor's degree in biochemistry, came to NREL to work on biofuel conversion. Using the process of flash pyrolysis, Lindeman and colleagues can heat up materials like grass, grains, and wood chips in the absence of oxygen with the goal of creating fuel.

"We're still not close to where we need to be to make this an economically viable process," Lindeman said. "Once we actually understand what is happening on the molecular level, then we will be able to make significant leaps."

Renewable energy has been, and will continue to be, a consistent theme throughout Lindeman's research. After he leaves NREL, Lindeman will take a year to work and apply for graduate programs to continue his studies in biochemistry.

For intern Emily Gasteyer, arriving in Colorado meant living out her dream. "I've been here for vacation a few times, and every time, I told my mom, 'One day I'm going to live in Colorado, and it's going to be great.' So I'm fulfilling my dream by living here, at least for the summer," she said.

Born and raised in the Midwest, Gasteyer studied chemical engineering at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Along with her love of Colorado, her desire to make a difference led her to NREL.

"I think it's really important to work in a place where you're doing something good, something that will help future generations," Gasteyer said. "To me, that's the most important thing I'm doing here—working to allow future generations to live not only as well as we're currently living, but even better."

In her effort to leave the world better than she found it, Gasteyer is working with thermochemical conversion at NREL. This is the process of rapidly heating biomass to turn it into an oil that can potentially be used in to fuel vehicles. "That's the hope—to eventually replace at least some of our petroleum-derived fuels with fuels that are derived from biomass."

Like Gasteyer, intern Brandon Pereyra also understands the underlying implications of his work at NREL. Pereyra comes from Long Island, New York, and is a junior at Binghamton University working toward his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering. His work at NREL's National Wind Technology Center near Boulder involves developing a model for a hydrokinetic turbine that can capture the energy of river currents.

"We need to start really investing and preparing for the future by developing these renewable technologies," said Pereyra. "We want to think of the future and where energy will come from in 100 years or so. We're not going to have the ability to just extract fossil fuels out of the ground, because they'll be depleted."

SULI Mentors Offer Guidance, Give Back

Photo of a woman working with piece of equipment in science lab. Enlarge image

Intern Emily Gasteyer studied chemical engineering at the University of Wisconsin. At NREL, she works with a catalytic fast-pyrolysis, tandem micro-reactor to process biomass samples at NREL's Field Test Laboratory Building.
Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

The SULI program is a chance for students to advance their academic and professional careers—and for their mentors, it is a chance to share their expertise and give back.

Todd Deutsch began at NREL as an intern researching photoelectrochemical water splitting and returned to become a senior scientist working in the same area. When the opportunity came to be a SULI mentor, he was happy to accept.

"It's been, for me at least, a life-changing experience that really provided me focus and showed me what I had to do to get to the next level," Deutsch said. "When I had my first internship it was like an epiphany for me, and I realized this is what I wanted to do with my life and career. I think it's a great program to expose young, enthusiastic, intelligent, and motivated interns to what a career in renewable energy looks like."

One thing Deutsch recommends for students looking to get into renewable energy is to get as much education as possible, saying: "You can never have too much education."

Deutsch isn't the only SULI mentor who is using this opportunity to give back. Michael Lawson, a research engineer at NREL, found his internship experiences as an undergrad so valuable that he's now helping others with similar goals. 

"It's rewarding to work with the interns. You get to see them progress over the course of 10 weeks, typically pretty quickly," Lawson said. "It's really a valuable experience, and I think that when you bring in undergraduates who are fresh out of their classes, they bring a unique perspective on things."

As a SULI mentor, Lawson not only teaches the interns, but continues to learn in the process. "Just the act of having to describe something from a very basic perspective actually gives me a better understanding of what's going on and helps put the problem in better perspective for me," he said. "It's kind of like the saying, 'You don't really understand anything until you teach it.'"

Learn more about NREL's internship programs.

— Shelby Wieman