Sandia LabNews

Mechanical engineer harnesses power of the sun to fight climate change

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SOLAR STAR — Evan Bush explores using concentrating solar power-generated heat to produce ammonia. In this photo, he places thermocouples inside the receiver cavity of a solar reduction reactor. (Photo by Craig Fritz)

Mechanical engineer Evan Bush is passionate about unlocking longer-term energy storage technologies that can positively affect the energy grid’s reliability and stability. Every person has something to contribute to the fight against climate change, he said, adding that the catalyst of change lies in clear communication and inclusion.

Evan began his career as an undergraduate intern in Sandia’s concentrating solar group in spring 2011. He received his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2014 from the University of Louisville, then obtained his master’s in 2017 and doctorate in 2019, both from Georgia Tech and in mechanical engineering.

After receiving his degrees, Evan returned to the concentrating solar group as a postdoc in June 2019 and became a staff member in January 2022.

In an interview with Lab News, Evan explains his definition of climate security, how his work helps fight the climate crisis and how he hopes to recruit new generations of climate activists.

LN: Why are you passionate about climate change?

EB: I think it would be really irrational for anyone to not be passionate about climate change. Whether it’s a concern for yourself, loved ones, other living things or future generations of people and animals, we all have plenty of reasons to want a stable and healthy environment. You can’t really say anyone is a bystander on this challenge, even if we may act like it. The challenge is daunting, so being pessimistic or avoidant is certainly something I can sympathize with. Still, there are certain aspects of climate change that provoke optimism and motivation. Since we all have a stake in solving climate change, the solutions can be ones which unite us and help us move past old divisions, distrusts and prejudices.

LN: What does “climate security” mean to you?

EB: To me, climate security means climate stability, which means climate change mitigation. Human civilization has flourished in part due to a remarkably stable climate. The many risks of climate change — including resource access, geopolitical instability, extreme weather events — are threats because, as a society and as individuals, we cannot react and adapt instantly and perfectly harmoniously to changes in our environment. If our strategy is just to react and adapt, we aren’t really promoting climate security. A rapidly changing climate creates a world where the costs — both literal and figurative — of adaptation compound the longer we wait and the less we focus on mitigation. We can’t have a reliable climate security strategy without mitigation taking a front-and-center position, and that means rapidly transforming how we generate and use energy.

LN: What climate-related challenge are you most excited to work on?

EB: Industrial decarbonization. There has been tremendous technological progress in making clean, renewable energy and transportation economically viable and widely available. While there’s still a lot of work to be done there, it’s some of the other parts of our energy map that make me the most excited as a researcher. Finding ways to power high-temperature industrial processes, which currently require the combustion of fossil fuels, is a big challenge, but also one which concentrating solar power is situated to address. There are many vital industries today for which there is no alternative, or at least no commercially mature alternative, to carbon-intensive methods. Solar heating, solar thermochemical processes and industrial waste heat utilization provide lots of opportunity for innovation.

LN: How does your work at Sandia advance climate security?

EB: I work in the concentrating solar thermal technologies group, specifically on high-temperature energy storage and using concentrating solar radiation to drive chemical processes. I analyze materials that harness and carry the energy, and I design solar receivers and reactors that run the processes and reactions for these technologies. This work helps promote climate security by unlocking longer-term energy storage and the ability to use solar energy even when the sun isn’t shining. These technologies can play a role in enhancing the reliability and stability of the energy grid as it takes on larger shares of intermittent renewable energy technologies. They also can help us lower our dependence on fossil fuels and nondomestic energy sources by modifying industrial processes to no longer rely on fuel combustion.

LN: What perspective or capabilities does Sandia bring to addressing the climate crisis?

EB: I think Sandia’s credibility in the area of national security can be leveraged to make the case that ambitious climate action is necessary. The interconnections between geopolitics, national security and the effects of climate change should be emphasized more strongly when we make the case for climate change mitigation, and Sandia is an entity which can do that with credibility.

Sandia’s large network of experts and infrastructure also gives us the opportunity to play a role in addressing climate change. Facilities like the National Solar Thermal Test Facility allow us to develop and test technologies at larger scales than are possible elsewhere. Scale-up is a very big challenge in developing alternative energy technologies and is a bridge from the lab to private industry. The solar test facility has decades of experience in this area and in working with private industry to deploy concentrating solar technologies. Through our own research projects and by working with others, we can help to ensure that good ideas make their way from the lab scale to the commercial scale.

LN: What does the nation or world look like in the future if we are successful in addressing climate change?

EB: At this point, some degree of climate impact is already locked in, so even if we are successful in curtailing greenhouse gas emissions like we need to, success still includes adapting to some significant climate impacts. But successfully addressing climate change will also lead to some very good secondary effects beyond minimizing the degree to which we have to adapt to changes in regional climate and extreme weather events. It will mean a more stable energy grid, which is more resilient to localized outages and variation in electricity production. In a world where energy generation is focused on harnessing distributed, renewable energy rather than localized resource extraction, we can undercut the ability of bad actors to leverage control of energy resources to do harm.

We also can diminish the degree to which certain regions and groups of people are disproportionately impacted by the externalities — climate change and otherwise — of energy production. But, to achieve this, we need to take care that we don’t recreate the same problems we currently see with traditional resource extraction when it comes to manufacturing and supply chains for renewable energy technologies.

LN: What’s your vision for integrating energy equity and environmental justice into Sandia’s climate security efforts?

EB: I grew up in eastern Kentucky, which is in the Appalachian region. Appalachia played a central role in the country’s energy economy and has experienced disproportionate impacts of energy extraction. Appalachian coal production drove incredible industrial advancement in this country. But much of eastern Kentucky’s history is an example of what doing it wrong looks like in energy resources management and how the costs and benefits of technology aren’t often proportionally experienced by the people producing it and using it to make our lives better. In a bit of poetic injustice, after bearing the brunt of the negative sides of our traditional energy production, Appalachia will be one of the hardest hit areas by transitioning away from those energy technologies.

So, I think it’s very important that, when we develop new energy technologies, we try to minimize the chance that we create similar situations. We should ensure that new technologies benefit the people who will have them in their backyards. We also should ensure that the impacts on those who depended on old technologies for their livelihoods and were most negatively impacted by those technologies are considered as well.

I think Sandia can help work toward this goal by incorporating the local and regional challenges into our technoeconomic analyses. Rather than just studying new energy systems in terms of which regions are most suited to implementing them, we can do work to understand how the most vulnerable groups and regions will be impacted by our work. We also can involve stakeholders through collaboration and hiring to ensure that the people most impacted by a solution have a say in how it is developed.

LN: If you were trying to recruit somebody to work on the problem of climate change what would you say to them?

EB: I would say this is a problem that we all have a stake in solving, and we can all make an impact. We need smart people, but we need much more than that. Scientists, engineers, investors and policymakers often speak different languages and have different perspectives. The challenge may seem intimidating at times, and people new to the field may think “where do I even start?” or “surely people with more experience have this figured out, know more than me, could do it better than I can.” These are thoughts that I’ve had, and I think many people new to a field do. But there’s a good chance that you will have something valuable to bring to the table, especially if you’re coming from a different background and bring a different perspective. You don’t have to know everything all at once. If you can integrate ideas from your prior technical experience, improve how we communicate with one another or have an experience which can help encourage buy-in from others, you’ll be making a difference.

LN: How can we educate and involve more people in addressing the climate crisis?

EB: One way is by improving communication between media and researchers. Many of the myths about climate science and renewable energy have come about because of failures in communication. At Sandia specifically, one way is by improving our programs for student internships, specifically at the undergraduate level. I became involved with concentrating solar power as a college sophomore due to fortunate timing, and because my first Sandia mentor, Chuck Andraka, had an interest in educating students and getting them involved in CSP research. Otherwise, I may have missed an opportunity to be involved in such an interesting and rewarding research field. I think we should promote collaborations with universities and getting students on-site to work with these technologies so that they think about renewable energy when they’re looking for a graduate program or career. 

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