Manufacturing Masterminds Series by Robynne Murray
“Chulilla, Spain!” Murray replied.
In a video released a few days later, Murray clings to a pale, sandy wall with a chalk bag attached to her back. Faster than blinking, she reaches for another meager posture, but her fingers slip, whipping her in a quick but controlled arc as protection catches her fall. A week earlier, Murray had climbed some very different rocks – in the snow-capped Alps – during a 6-day ski trip called the Haute Route. Before that? More rocks – ice-covered rocks, Italian rocks, rocks in Montana, Colorado and Zion National Park in Utah.
For anyone who knows Murray, none of this is surprising. Growing up in Canada, she literally got her hands dirty digging through Fundy Bay. Even in his laboratory at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), a mechanical engineer likes to get his hands dirty, produce and evaluate new materials – such as recyclable plastic and carbon fiber – for wind turbines and tidal turbines and electric vehicles. Today, if he is not fighting rock or ice, he is probably fighting molds and resins in the laboratory.
Murray has already achieved great success in both. In rock climbing, she recently tried a 7c + climb (9 is the maximum) in Spain called Siempre Se Puede Hacer Menos or “You can always do less” (Murray obviously disagrees). And in the lab, she and a team at NREL’s Composite Education and Technology Plant (CoMET) created an award-winning thermoplastic resin that can be used to make recyclable wind turbine blades.
In this Manufacturing Masterminds Q&A, Murray talks about his latest outdoor adventures, making sugar plastic instead of traditional fossil fuels, how he was a “little rebel” in high school and whether he believes in free will. This interview is arranged for clarity and length.
I always ask: do you have a story about the origins of scientists? Was there a moment when you knew you wanted to do science?
I don’t have one of those amazing origin stories. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I loved being outdoors; I care a lot about the environment, our climate and nature conservation. I also love math and science, so in high school, one of my teachers said, “Oh, you could be a mechanical engineer. It combines everything you love. ”
And that was it?
I realized that with mechanical engineering I could use my mathematical and physical skills to do something significant. When I started my PhD. program in tidal energy, i have never heard of tidal energy before. But the industry immediately caught my attention. There were so many challenges. It’s like taking a wind turbine and putting it under water. You have to reconsider almost everything.
You earned your PhD from Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada. How did you get to NREL from there?
During my studies, I constantly referred to NREL documents, reports and works. I thought, “Man, NREL is doing such cool research. But I’m just a girl from Nova Scotia. I will never end up there. ”
And yet, there 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 curious about my research. He gave me his information and said: “Call me. Let’s talk about doing a postdoctoral fellowship. “
And that was it – again. Do you think your junior would be surprised to learn that you will end up in NREL?
I would be so excited, but I probably wouldn’t believe it. I was a bit of a rebel in high school. If I had known that I would do something useful and significant in my life, then I would have had much more self-confidence. I thought I wasn’t good enough.
Obviously you are. But wait – tell me more about this rebel thing.
When I was in high school, I didn’t know you could be cool and smart. I had good grades, but I just wanted to have fun and fit in with the “cool kids”. My parents wanted me to do this science and entrepreneurship program called Shad Canada, and my mom eventually put together my application because she really wanted me to pass. When I was admitted, I didn’t want to go, but they somehow persuaded me. Shad Canada was also a bunch of really cool, unique, interesting and really smart people. It completely changed the way I thought about myself. I realized that I could be proud to be smart and not hide it.
So it turns out you have a story of origin.
In fact, yes. I guess I did, and I owe a lot to my amazing parents.
Now that you are a complete engineer at NREL, what are you working on?
I mainly work on designing and testing recyclable materials for wind turbines and tidal turbine blades, and even vehicles. It started with thermoplastic materials, which can create cheaper wind turbine blades that are more reliable and easier to recycle. We can also produce more durable, cost-effective tidal turbine blades that can survive longer in salt water.
But I’m really excited about our new material, the bioresin designed here at NREL, which we can make from sugar or other biological materials. It can be recycled, like thermoplastics, but it is also made from non-petroleum products, which helps decarbonize the energy sector.
I understand why these materials would be super useful for the wind and tidal energy industry, but you also mentioned electric cars?
Yes, the weight of the battery in electric cars is increasing, and lighter vehicles are leading to more efficient vehicles. Lightweight carbon fiber can help build lighter ones
vehicles, but in order to decarbonise the production process, we need to use that carbon in multiple life cycles. Our new material could be used in carbon fiber composites to make lighter vehicles while increasing the ductility and safety you need. It can also be recycled.
In an ideal world, what would you like to see for clean energy industries, such as tidal energy?
In an ideal world, tidal devices will stand under water for 20 years, produce affordable power, provide solid, reliable jobs and be made from sustainable materials. Realistically, we have a long way to go. We need robust devices with a low probability of failure, and we are simply not there yet. We need stronger, more predictable materials and systems.
Is there anything about the development of technology that surprised you?
How hard it is. Even when you have an amazing team of people, things can go wrong, and it’s always something you didn’t anticipate.
All right. I know that your recent Verdant Power partnership, in which you placed thermoplastic blades on their tidal turbine device on the East River in New York, had some problems – everything worked, but you didn’t get the data you wanted. Are you planning to try again?
I hope so. Verdant Power removed his device from that site. But we hope to set up a set of tidal turbine blades – designed and built at NREL – at the New Hampshire University Living Bridge Test Site (in collaboration with Sandia National Laboratories). The whole project – everything from material selection, composite blade design and test structure and performance – will also be completely open source.
When you don’t get your hands dirty in the lab, what do you usually do?
I just finished the Haute Route tour from Chamonix, France, to Zermatt, Switzerland.
Yes, it was a pretty epic 6-day venture. Along the way you stay in small mountain huts. It was wonderful and really challenging.
Something like hiking the Appalachian Trail?
Yes, but on skis.
Going back to your first great love in the world of nature – Bay of Fundy in your hometown. In the 2021 profile, you said that putting devices in high-speed tides, like those in the Gulf, is like trying to put a man on the moon before we know how to fly.
Yes. We have a long way to go to reach the moon. But the possibility of moving towards a cleaner source of energy would benefit, well, the Earth, which benefits us.
Are you interested in building a clean energy future? Read other questions and answers from NREL researchers in the field of advanced production and review open positions to see what it is like to work at NREL.
Do you want to learn more about Robynne Murray? Watch NREL’s video interview with her, titled “A Day in the Life: Robynne Murray”.
Author: Caitlin McDermott-Murphy. Courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) of the US Department of Energy (DOE).
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