DU chemistry grads get hands-on experience at National Renewable Energy Lab
At the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., DU alumna Mariel Price experiments with lignin, an organic substance that is a by-product of biofuel production. Her goal is to help transform lignin into polymer precursors that can be made into sustainable materials similar to plastics.
Also at NREL, alumnus Alex Hill is busy experimenting with drying agents called dessicants that can be used to increase the efficiency of cooling appliances. He also researches how silica-based microsphere insulation — small glass-like materials — can improve window insulation. His research has the potential to increase the energy efficiency of commercial and residential buildings.
Price and Hill, both chemistry majors who graduated from DU in spring 2016, are part of the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (SULI) program. Spanning 17 labs and facilities within the Department of Energy, SULI gives interns the opportunity to perform research under the guidance of staff scientists and engineers. NREL, which is just a short drive from the DU campus, pioneers the use of wind, sun and biomass for generating energy.
“I learn new things every day at NREL,” Hill says. “Not only do I get to do my own research, but I get to see what others are doing, which is very valuable. And because NREL is tied so closely to the DOE, we address real-world issues that have a tangible impact.”
As a chemistry major, Hill always liked using his hands, which led to him to NREL’s Materials Science Center, where he collaborates with a team of chemical engineers working on energy-efficient building technologies.
He credits the foundation in chemistry that he built at DU for helping him succeed in his internship. Professor Keith Miller’s Chemistry Frontiers capstone course — which he and Price took together — taught him to think independently, while professor Balasingam Murugaverl’s Instrumental Analysis course challenged him like no other.
“My advice to DU students is to ask as much as you can from your professors and advisors,” he says. “They have a lot of wisdom to give and are there to help you.”
Meanwhile, Price’s passion for renewable energy is rooted in her love of the natural environment. She credits the opportunity to do research as an undergrad at DU for leading her to NREL.
“Working in a lab and doing research as an undergrad makes the transition to an internship such as this much easier,” she says. “Spending time in the chemistry stockroom at DU and having a background in laboratory prep and chemical waste management can really put you ahead of the game.”
Price is part of NREL’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development program, which promotes innovations in science and technology. Garnering more uses for lignin is important for the economic success of the biofuels industry. The use of renewable resources to make polymers also has ramifications for mitigating greenhouse gases.
It was in Miller’s lab at DU where Price first experimented with making polymers and developed an interest in materials. She credits the chemistry department’s Brian Majestic for giving her the freedom to pursue her interests.
“I love chemistry and really enjoy materials science and organic synthesis,” she says. “All of the encouragement from my professors at DU gave me the courage to push forward and pursue a career in research and development.”
As part of the SULI program, Price and Hill participate in professional development and networking activities. Both hope eventually to attend graduate school.