Q&A With Robynne Murray: Rebel With A Cause—And an Ice Axe
Manufacturing Masterminds Series
“Where are you now!?” a friend wrote on Robynne Murray’s Facebook wall on March 31, 2022.
“Chulilla, Spain!” Murray responded.
In a video posted days later, Murray grips a pale, sandy rock wall with a chalk bag strapped to her back. Faster than a blink, she reaches for another meager hold, but her fingers slip, whipping her in a fast but controlled arc as her belayer catches her fall. The week before, Murray was climbing some very different rocks—the snow-packed Alps—during a 6-day ski trek called the Haute Route. Before that? More rocks—ice-covered rocks, Italian rocks, rocks in Montana, Colorado, and Utah’s Zion National Park.
For anyone who knows Murray, none of this is surprising. Growing up in Canada, she literally got her hands dirty clam digging in the Bay of Fundy. Even in her lab at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the mechanical engineer likes getting her hands dirty, manufacturing and evaluating new materials—like recyclable plastics and carbon fibers—for wind and tidal turbines and electric vehicles. Today, if she’s not grappling with a crag of rock or ice, she’s probably grappling with molds and resins in the lab.
Murray has already achieved great success in both. In rock climbing, she recently attempted a 7c+ climb (9 is the max) in Spain called Siempre Se Puede Hacer Menos or “You can always do less” (Murray clearly disagrees). And in the lab, she and the team at NREL’s Composites Manufacturing Education and Technology (CoMET) Facility concocted an award-winning thermoplastic resin that can be used to build recyclable wind turbine blades.
In this Manufacturing Masterminds Q&A, Murray talks about her latest outdoor adventures, building plastics from sugars instead of the traditional fossil fuels, being “a bit of a rebel” in high school, and how tidal energy is like landing on the moon. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
I always ask: Do you have a scientist origin story? Was there a moment you knew you wanted to go into science?
I don't have one of those amazing origin stories. I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I loved being outdoors; I care a lot about the environment, our climate, and preserving nature. I also love math and science, so in high school, one of my teachers said, “Oh, you could be a mechanical engineer. That combines everything you love.”
And that was that?
I realized that, with mechanical engineering, I could use my math and physics skills to do something meaningful. When I started my Ph.D. program in tidal energy, I had never heard of tidal energy before. But the industry grabbed my attention right away. There were so many challenges. It’s like taking a wind turbine and putting it underwater. You have to rethink almost everything.
You earned your Ph.D. from Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada. How did you get to NREL from there?
Throughout my studies, I was constantly referring to NREL documents, reports, and papers. I thought, “Man, NREL does such cool research. But I'm just a little girl from Nova Scotia. I'll never end up there.”
And yet, here you are.
I owe that to Bob Thresher. I was at the International Conference on Ocean Energy in Halifax, Canada, when I met him and Levi Kilcher. Bob was so inquisitive about my research. He gave me his information and said, “Call me. Let's talk about you doing a postdoctoral fellowship.”
And that was that—again. Do you think your younger self would have been surprised to know you’d end up at NREL?
I would have been so excited, but I probably wouldn't have believed it. I was a bit of a rebel in high school. If I knew I would be doing something useful and meaningful in my life, I would have had a lot more confidence back then. I thought I wasn’t good enough.
Clearly you are. But wait—tell me more about this rebel thing.
When I was in high school, I didn't realize you could be cool and smart. I had good grades, but I just wanted to party and fit in with the “cool kids.” My parents wanted me to do this science and entrepreneurial program called Shad Canada, and my mom ended up putting my application together because she wanted me to go so badly. When I was accepted, I didn’t want to go, but somehow, they talked me into it. Shad Canada was a bunch of really cool, unique, interesting, and really smart people, too. It completely shifted the way that I thought about myself. I realized I can be proud that I'm smart and not try and hide that.
So, it turns out you do have an origin story.
Actually, yeah. I suppose I do, and I owe a lot of it to my amazing parents.
Now that you’re a full-fledged engineer at NREL, what are you working on?
Mostly, I work on designing and testing recyclable materials for wind turbine and tidal turbine blades and even vehicles. It started off with thermoplastic materials, which can create less expensive wind turbine blades that are more reliable and more easily recyclable. We can as also produce more durable, cost-effective tidal turbine blades that can survive in salt water longer.
But I'm really excited about our new material, a bioresin designed here, at NREL, which we can make from sugar stock or other biological materials. It’s recyclable, like thermoplastics, but also made from nonpetroleum products, which helps to decarbonize the energy sector.
I get why these materials would be super useful for the wind energy and tidal energy industries, but you also mentioned electric cars?
Yeah, the battery weight in electric cars adds up, and lighter vehicles lead to more efficient vehicles. Lightweight carbon fiber can help build lighter-weight vehicles, but to decarbonize the manufacturing process, we need to use that carbon across multiple life cycles. Our new material could be used in carbon fiber composites to build lighter vehicles while enhancing the ductility and safety you need. It’s recyclable, too.
In an ideal world, what would you want to see for clean energy industries, like tidal energy?
In an ideal world, tidal energy devices will sit underwater for 20 years, produce affordable power, provide solid, reliable jobs, and be made of sustainable materials. Realistically, we have a long way to go. We need robust devices where the likelihood of failure is low, and we're just not there yet. We need tougher, more predictable materials and systems.
Is there anything about the technology development that has surprised you?
Just how difficult it is. Even when you have an amazing team of people, things can still go wrong, and it's always something you didn’t predict.
Right. I know your recent Verdant Power partnership, in which you deployed thermoplastic blades on their tidal turbine device in New York City’s East River, had some hitches—everything worked, but you didn’t get the data you wanted. Do you plan to give it another go?
I sure hope so. Verdant Power removed their device from that site. But we are hoping to deploy a set of composite tidal turbine blades—designed and made at NREL—on the University of New Hampshire’s living bridge test site (a collaboration with Sandia National Laboratories). That whole project—everything from the material selection, blade composite design, and testing structure and performance—will be completely open source, too.
When you’re not getting your hands dirty in the lab, what are you typically doing?
I just completed the Haute Route—a ski tour from Chamonix, France, to Zermatt, Switzerland.
Yeah, it was a pretty epic 6-day undertaking. You stay at small mountain huts along the way. It was beautiful and really challenging.
Kind of like hiking the Appalachian Trail?
Yeah, but on skis.
Going back to your first great love in the natural world—your hometown’s Bay of Fundy. In a 2021 profile, you said that putting devices in fast-moving tides, like those in the Bay, is like trying to put a man on the moon before we know how to fly.
Yeah. We have a long way to go to get on the moon. But being able to move toward a cleaner power source would benefit, well, the Earth, which benefits us.
Want to learn more about Robynne Murray? Check out NREL’s video interview with her, called “Day in the Life: Robynne Murray."