Distinguished Researcher Birdie Carpenter Sets Sail After Naval Career

July 14, 2023 | By Ernie Tucker | Contact media relations

Alberta (Birdie) Carpenter, one of seven newly named National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) Distinguished Researchers, enjoys science but also embraces unexpected opportunities.

“A lot of my life—and the path I’ve been on—has just been happenstance,” Carpenter said.

For example, after growing up in exotic locations such as Pakistan, Taiwan, and Somalia with her family during her father’s State Department career postings, she found herself in Laramie, Wyoming, finishing up high school.

Portrait of Birdie Carpenter.
Alberta (Birdie) Carpenter. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

It was her father’s final State Department stop, teaching at the University of Wyoming, and the young woman who had gotten to see “amazing places” was, temporarily, transformed into a Plainsman, as the Laramie Senior High School students were called (or for girls, the odd-sounding Lady Plainsman).

But she did not stay on the plains.

In the summer of her junior year, after excelling at math, she was invited to visit the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. It was her only college tour.

“I was really impressed. Everyone seemed super mature and confident,” Carpenter said. And although her father had enlisted in the Navy, it was not about following his legacy. Conscious of the cost of higher education in a family of four, Carpenter decided to apply for ROTC scholarships and for admission to all the service academies.

As it turned out, the Navy accepted her and she became a midshipman in 1989.

“College seemed so expensive, but this was all in a nutshell: everything paid for, then you get a job. It was ideal for me,” Carpenter said.

She realized it was not for everyone. “My three siblings were totally not interested,” Carpenter laughed. But she enjoyed the structure, even as she found the engineering curriculum “really challenging. I did not get great grades at the academy.”

Still, after graduating in 1993 and serving five years in the Navy, with several deployments on aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf, she was honorably discharged with the rank of lieutenant. Her military training paid off.

In her subsequent pursuit of advanced degrees in environmental engineering, she earned top marks. It was during that time that she happened upon another life-changing passion: the practice of yoga.

“Yoga would calm me and keep my brain working” during graduate school, Carpenter said.

While pursuing her Ph.D. at the University of New Hampshire, one of her roommates happened to be a yoga instructor and they would do a Mysore-style self-practice almost every morning. That solidified her practice, and although she has no formal yoga training, she draws upon what she has learned from other teachers so that she continues to serve as one of NREL’s regular volunteer yoga instructors.

Three photos of a woman in yoga poses.
Birdie Carpenter, who has long been a yoga student and practitioner, regularly teaches virtual yoga at NREL. Video screenshots from Birdie Carpenter, NREL

NREL Becomes Home Port

Carpenter had learned about NREL when she used some data during her Ph.D. program. Once she received her doctorate in 2009, she went job hunting—and was hired in the buildings technology group to manage the U.S. Life Cycle Inventory Database.

While that is still part of her responsibilities, she has tackled a variety of broad issues with the steady approach to challenges she learned in the Navy. “That’s one thing the Navy teaches you: Keep plugging away, and you’ll figure it out.”

Her focus is now on the environmental impacts from industry and manufacturing. She said she started by thinking about supply-chain analysis and life cycles of materials. “That morphed into thinking about circular economy, she said, which has become a pillar in the NREL strategy.

At the same time, she is focused on the need for decarbonization and how industry is a big part of that. Carpenter was charged with being one of the leads of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Industrial Decarbonization Roadmap.

The roadmap focuses on five of the highest carbon dioxide (CO2)-emitting industries where industrial decarbonization technologies can have the greatest impact across the nation: petroleum refining, chemicals, iron and steel, cement, and food and beverage. These industries represent 15% of U.S. economy-wide total CO2 emissions.

Carpenter is realistic about progress in industrial decarbonization.

“We still have a long ways to go. For the most part, we have better understanding of the issues and the opportunities,” she said. “Having the ability to incorporate such concepts as the circular economy, decarbonization, and equity into research programs is important as we’re developing the next generation of technology.”

Further, such awareness connects to broader thinking about critical materials. “That is, how we are making sure we have access to the materials we need to meet the needs of the economy,” Carpenter said. It also affects thinking about the broader awareness of how we are using materials “writ large.”

Two women sit on a panel, one speaking into a microphone.
A panel that includes of Nikita Dutta (left), from the Analytical Microscopy Group, and Birdie Carpenter, from the Resources and Sustainability Group discuss exploratory ideas during the 2023 Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis (JISEA) annual meeting at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado. JISEA is NREL’s center for launching new research domains addressing future challenges to the clean energy transition. Photo by Werner Slocum, NREL

Thinking is one thing. Action is another. Carpenter said that for now, she sees “little bits of it here and there” but does not think there has been a large shift in approaches to materials.

There are promising signs and ways in which industry leaders and researchers are starting to be creative about materials reuse.

Some ideas related to recycling wind turbine blades include suggestions about cutting blades into large chunks and using them to build houses—or melting down materials and forming them into bricks. “These are creative, but they are not quite scalable, at least not right now,” she said.

Realistically, researchers must ensure that possible solutions are appropriate for building systems and not being deployed solely to try something novel.

Carpenter, who met her husband in the Navy, is pleased to call NREL her home port. “I love the amazing, smart talented people I get to work with. And all of the cool, challenging problems we work on.”

Carpenter also is in tune with NREL’s mission: “The goal is making the world a better place,” she said. And for the globe-trotting former naval officer, that is smooth sailing.

Carpenter was one of seven NREL staff to receive the Distinguished Member of Research Staff (DMRS) designation in 2023. She was recognized for “leading multiple high-impact efforts in industrial decarbonization and circular economy.”

The DMRS designation is intended to provide greater recognition to NREL researchers. It should also position individuals to work in more strategic and technical leadership roles, with continued expectations for their contributions to further enhance NREL's reputation and mission objectives.

Tags: Awards,Buildings,Staff Profile