Hydrogen, which is the lightest element on earth, is going to be a very important piece in the battle for decarbonization. But it’s also very difficult to produce in an environment-friendly way and distribute over long distances.
Prantik Saha, our next pathbreaker, Scientific Advisor and Consultant at Black & Veatch (Denver), an engineering consulting firm in sustainable infrastructure, works on renewable energy projects that focus on long-term storage.
Prantik talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about one of his projects at National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL, Colorado) on the techno-economic analysis of storing power produced by renewable sources like solar cells and wind turbines, in hydrogen for long duration energy storage.
For students, a career in renewable energy requires a combination of scientific skills and analytical skills along with a large dose of creativity/imagination to overcome the practical hurdles in the way of a sustainable economy !
Prantik, tell us about your early years?
I was born in a little city in Bangladesh called Noakhali and spent my childhood there. I did almost all of my education in West Bengal, India. I studied Physics with a minor in Statistics and Mathematics at Presidency College which was affiliated to the University of Calcutta at that time. Towards the end of my BSc, I understood that I wanted to pursue research because I liked solving problems in innovative ways. I always had this motivation to do something different in a field. I had interests in different topics like astrophysics & cosmology, renewable energy, condensed matter, biophysics etc. It was very difficult to choose a discipline for my research as I was fascinated by all of them!
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I initially did my BSc (Physics) from University of Calcutta.
I came to the USA in 2016 to get a PhD and pursue a research career in Physics. I chose Tufts University because I got an extra fellowship in addition to the usual scholarship from them. Initially, I opted for research in astrophysics & cosmology but switched to renewable energy within 6 months or so. By that time, I realized that I wanted to contribute intellectually to a field that is directly associated with human development.
I got my MS from Tufts University where I worked in my advisor’s hydrogen lab for a year. After spending two years at Tufts University, I followed my advisor who went to UC Irvine in California. I continued to work with her towards my PhD on a similar dissertation topic.
I fell in love with the beautiful southern California beaches and the warm weather instantly.
What prompted you to take up such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?
There were several reasons for me to choose renewable energy as my career. Firstly, I had a philosophical motivation to contribute to building infrastructure that is sustainable. Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, we have been developing infrastructure without paying any attention to its impact on the environment or human life in the long run. Now we have started realizing that we will perish from the earth pretty soon if we do not focus on sustainability. This philosophy of sustainable coexistence with nature always motivated me. Secondly, in the US, research activities on renewable energy are really throbbing unlike in India. There were always some lectures, talks, and casual discussions around renewables. This made it easy for me to get into the ecosystem. Thirdly, when I met my PhD dissertation advisor Prof. Iryna Zenyuk for the first time, she was so amazing and easy going that it was very comfortable for me to get inside her lab and involve myself in research activities. She explained to me that hydrogen, which is the lightest element on the earth, is going to be a very important piece in the battle for decarbonization. But it’s also very difficult to produce in an environment-friendly way and distribute it over long distances. As a researcher, you want to pick up topics that are difficult. So, I finally picked up green hydrogen as my research topic.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted?Tell us about your career path.
My PhD was on understanding and analyzing the physical properties of interfaces between catalysts and electrolytes that are technically electrochemical double layers. In any electrochemical energy conversion system like a battery, hydrogen fuel cell, electrolyzer etc., reactions that convert the energy stored in chemical bonds to electrical energy occur at the electrochemical double layers. So, deep analysis of these systems is very important for pure scientific growth as well as for new developments in the technologies. As a result, my dissertation was very fundamental in nature, and at the same time, extremely relevant for technological development. The best part of my PhD work was when I successfully designed a setup as well as a method to analyze the double layers that is completely novel. No one else did this before. It took me two and a half years and I am extremely proud of that achievement. I was lucky to have got my salary which came from a fully funded research grant that my advisor won a few years ago. This saved a lot of time as I did not have to do teaching assistantship, and I could wrap up my PhD within 5 years. I also led an industrial R&D project on hydrogen fuel cells at Bosch research center while I was doing my PhD.
After I got my PhD, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go to academia or industry. I liked doing research, because, at its core, every STEM research topic is basically solving problems in an innovative way which I absolutely loved. However, academic research can become a little monotonous because people think in terms of publications. In my opinion, it takes the fun out of the process of ‘doing research’ to some extent because you stop focusing on the problem itself and focus on ‘how to write the paper’ and stuff like that. On the other hand, I had this immense motivation to work on real projects, for example, developing a grid scale battery storage system. So, I was gradually drifting towards the renewables industry.
After my PhD, I joined the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, USA as a postdoc. It’s the Mecca of renewable energy research. There are so many great people working on technology development, economic and policy analysis etc. I worked here on two different kinds of research projects. The first one was on developing a technology called carbon dioxide electrolyzers which is a new type of technology to capture carbon dioxide from heavy industries and convert it to valuable chemicals. My second project was on doing techno-economic analysis of storing power produced by the renewable sources like solar cells and wind turbines to hydrogen for long duration energy storage. Both these projects were applied in nature and directly applicable to the renewable energy industry. I also participated in international activities to facilitate development of clean energy systems worldwide. I had a lot of fun here.
How did you get your first break?
My first break came during my PhD time. My advisor gave me a very tough fundamental problem that underlies most of the energy conversion processes in devices like batteries, fuel cells etc. It was a very inter-disciplinary problem that required expertise in physics, chemistry, and engineering. I enjoyed that a lot. However, it took me two and half years to build a setup and develop a method that ultimately gave me my PhD. It was very innovative, and anything that is innovative is also extremely difficult to do for the first time because it’s non-trivial. But through a lot of trials and errors, I was able to make things work.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
As I mentioned before, whenever you try to do something that nobody has done, it’s a challenge. Because you don’t know what is right and what is not. You have to go through a process of self-evaluation. Though my advisor was very helpful in the journey, it was my job to figure it out. When it comes to doing something new in science, the trick is always to start on a giant’s shoulder, i.e., start from where the previous experts left. I realized this in my 3rd year in PhD and that’s how I was able to build my setup. Anyone can do it by doing literature review.
Where do you work now? Tell us about your current role
I currently work as a scientific advisor and consultant at Black & Veatch, a big engineering firm which is heavily into renewable energy. I work with my team and come up with strategic plans to develop renewable energy projects that focus on long-duration storage. In the present world, we produce electrical power whenever needed. In a decarbonized world, this strategy will not work. The sun won’t shine at night, and hence, solar farms will not produce power at night. Wind energy is also intermittent, i.e., it fluctuates with time. So, we need giant energy systems where we can store the excess energy produced by the renewables temporarily or for long duration and use the energy later when we need it. These storage technologies include batteries (e.g., lithium-ion batteries), flow batteries, hydrogen etc. Most of these systems happen to be electrochemical in nature. Because of my technical expertise in electrochemistry, I work on the technical side of the commercial renewable energy projects, for example, if a commercial storage project requires green hydrogen, then I figure out how powerful the electrolyzer needs to be and how it should be operated for a certain end-use. The fun part of this kind of work is that I have to imagine a big picture of how I think the infrastructure should look like for a certain case. Then I add the specific details on how to make the system like that. For now, I am working with the federal and state governments in the U.S. Later, I will also get involved in international projects.
How does your work benefit society?
I develop plans to build renewable energy infrastructure, so, it’s basically the first step towards sustainable development.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
During my postdoc, I worked on a project where I figured out the economics of storing the power produced by renewable sources like wind and solar into hydrogen so that it can be used by a community. This was first-of-its own kind of work and it gave me immense pleasure. The work I did is being used by various renewable energy organizations to understand the role of green hydrogen in decarbonization.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
If you want to become a scientist, my best advice would be to develop a habit of scientific communication. Doing science in the modern world is a community effort. It’s not like Newton’s time when you go home during a pandemic and think about why things work in a certain way. You have to build on the work done by your predecessors. So, don’t focus too much on textbooks, but read research papers as much as you can and discuss them with your teachers, friends, and family members. In this way, you will easily find out what the next step in scientific development should be. One common mistake we make in our undergraduate years, particularly in developing nations, is that we do not get this lesson of ‘how to do research in the modern world’. I would advise you to get engaged in research projects while in undergrad.
I will keep developing renewable energy projects because I am enjoying it very much. It combines my scientific and analytical skills with imagination. In the future, I want to work in developing nations to help build their sustainable infrastructure as well.