Celebrating NREL Women Advancing Energy Storage

July 29, 2021

Energy storage research initiatives at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) are as diverse as the individuals who support these projects. The technological innovation and commercialization of energy conversion and storage solutions span a range of research and development areas, including hydrogen, fuel cells, electrochemical batteries, thermal systems, and water power.

Within these programs, women are an integral piece of the initiative to supply clean and affordable energy when and where it is needed. This year, NREL joined the Department of Energy’s (DOE's) Energy Storage Grand Challenge (ESGC) in celebrating just a few of the women making significant contributions within energy storage programs. NREL directors and managers identified nearly a dozen outstanding women and, of these, ESGC selected three for special recognition.

“As vital members of NREL’s energy storage team, these women represent the passion and excellence that drives our vision for clean and affordable energy when and where it is needed,” said Energy Conversion and Storage Systems Center Director Jennifer Kurtz. “We want to continue to celebrate their work throughout the year.”

Kae Fink, Electrochemical Energy Storage Researcher

Photo of Kae Fink wearing a white lab coat and green gloves. She is handling samples.
NREL researcher Kae Fink works with coin cell batteries in an environmental chamber in the Materials Characterization Lab of NREL's Energy Systems Integration Facility. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

Lithium-ion batteries are a game changer in energy storage, with electric vehicles (EVs) on the path to dominating light-duty transportation in the next 30 years. However, EV batteries will eventually need to be recycled once they reach the end of their functional life to repurpose the valuable materials that make up the battery and reduce unnecessary waste.

Since joining NREL in 2018, Kae Fink has become a leader in direct recycling technology development for lithium-ion batteries. Her work supports the development and optimization of novel sampling and data analysis methods that track how the positive electrode of lithium-ion batteries changes as the battery ages. This research identifies opportunities for cheaper and more efficient recycling. Fink also proposed, developed, and executed a study that demonstrates a low-cost procedure for solvent washing of end-of-life cathodes to implement in a recycling line, which resulted in a patent in 2021. Currently, Fink works within DOE’s ReCell Center on a novel process to remove aluminum and copper impurities from shredded end-of-life batteries, which could improve the economic viability of a direct recycling line.

In collaboration with several industrial partners, Fink leads technical laboratory evaluations of advanced battery materials. Additionally, she has designed novel gas collection and sampling techniques that provide detailed chemical information on battery systems. This diagnostic approach, which is critical to improving battery safety, allows researchers to study batteries undergoing mechanical abuse and informs improvements in battery safety.

Tessa Greco, Water Power Project Manager

Photo of Tessa Greco
Tessa Greco is NREL's Water Power Program Manager. Photo by Werner Slocum, NREL

Pumped storage hydropower (PSH) is by far the largest energy storage source on the grid, well matched to provide the reliability and resilience necessary to protect energy storage systems.

As a project manager for Water Power at NREL, Greco oversees the execution of DOE’s American-Made Challenges FAST Prize. The goal of the FAST Prize—which stands for “Furthering Advancements to Shorten the Time to commissioning for PSH”—is to decrease commission times of PSH projects from 10 years to five, reducing both cost and risk.

Under Greco’s leadership, the FAST Prize incentivized American innovators to identify ideas to reduce the time, cost, and risk from concept to commissioning for PSH. A panel of industry experts reviewed proposals for technology advancements that could have broad national application and support increased renewable energy penetration on the grid. Due to the success of the FAST Prize, NREL is now developing a bottom-up cost model for PSH, which will incorporate various scaling and geographic constraints and considerations.

Judith Vidal, Buildings Energy Science Group Manager

Photo of Judith Vidal
NREL researcher Judith Vidal works with a thermogravimetric analyzer to determine thermal stability of fluids under different atmospheres. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

Increasing the temperature at which molten salts can store heat is critical to improving solar thermal storage applications. However, materials at extreme temperatures can have adverse effects on their containers, as many metals corrode in the presence of such aggressive conditions. Judith Vidal’s research has paved the way to higher temperature materials that resist corrosion by implementing new coatings that protect against molten salts and liquid metal alloys at high temperatures (600–900°C).

During her 10 years at NREL, Vidal’s extensive thermal storage materials research has distinguished her as a molten salts expert. Currently the Building Energy Science Group manager, Vidal has an international reputation for her cutting-edge work on thermal storage systems. In addition, she is a prolific author of more than 50 journal articles and other publications. The 2017 Gen3 CSP demonstration roadmap, for which she was the molten salt leader, has been cited more than 200 times.

Vidal’s expertise and capabilities apply to various applications, including building emerging technologies, water-splitting electrolysis, fuel cells, thermoelectrics, and biofuels. She has also developed high-temperature energy storage solutions for concentrating solar power plants. Vidal’s thermal storage materials research includes thermochemical optimization and purification routes of thermal fluids, corrosion evaluation, and mitigation approaches.  

Learn more about NREL’s energy storage research.