Sandia LabNews

Chemist researches nuclear fuel cycle, critical metals to fight climate change

Image of Sandia chemist Andrew Knight hikes in the New Mexico mountains
CLIMATE STEWARD — Chemist Andrew Knight is committed to slowing the pace of climate change through his work and daily interactions. In his free time, Andrew enjoys hiking in the New Mexico mountains. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Knight)

Andrew Knight, a chemist who specializes in nuclear fuel storage and transportation at Sandia, thinks a key to addressing the challenge of climate change is to incorporate the topic into everyday conversation. Andrew began at Sandia in 2017 as a postdoc in the geochemistry group. During his tenure at Sandia, Andrew has focused most of his research on the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle, sourcing critical metals and environmental contamination linked to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, which are synthetic chemical compounds known to cause long-term negative health effects.

Andrew received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 2012 from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and a doctorate from the University of Iowa. Prior to working at Sandia, he completed internships at both Savannah River and Argonne national laboratories.

Read Andrew’s interview to learn why empathetic communication is a powerful tool and how nuclear energy could strengthen the fight against climate change.

Lab News: Why are you passionate about climate change?

Andrew Knight: We are very fortunate to live on a planet where we can grow food, have shelter and keep warm. We exist because of the Earth, and we must do our job to respect the Earth so that future generations can enjoy it as well. There isn’t an alternative. Unchecked climate change will lead to a situation that would be very dire.

LN: What does climate security mean to you?

AK: For me, climate security would be to maintain a stable global climate to prevent mass global disruptions. As the climate becomes more unpredictable, societies will have to find ways to cope — which could very easily lead to conflict. I think it is really important to bear in mind those places that are disproportionately affected by climate change. Now is definitely the time to engage and have empathetic communication in order for a global collective effort to fight climate change. Without a collective effort, issues related to climate security would be hard to avoid.

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

AK: I think water is key. Now, living in the Southwest after moving from the Midwest, the importance of water cannot be understated. Globally, this is the case too. Water keeps us alive; it grows our crops, maintains biodiversity and drives our energy systems. I think if there was one area to focus on, establishing long-term solutions for water availability is a big one for me.

I think another important aspect is individual and corporate environmental stewardship. As Sandians, we must try to do our part to minimize our impact and we must push other Sandians — and Sandia as a lab — to continue to make changes to be more conscious of our impact. There are definitely signs of progress, but there is a long way to go.

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

AK: I work on many different projects that have various ties to climate security. The main work I do is related to the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle; however, without solutions to the back end of the fuel cycle, nuclear’s role can only be limited. I am also involved in research to extract critical metals from unconventional sources to reduce our need on foreign supplies of the materials that will be critical to electrify everything. Lastly, I have been working to push Sandia to expand research on environmental contamination, specifically PFAS. As I mentioned before, water is important to me, and it is clear that widespread PFAS contamination is rapidly jeopardizing water for many parts of the United States and the world.

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

AK: The overall brain trust at Sandia is huge. Sandia has been involved in major scientific and engineering solutions to address the needs of the past, and now Sandia has to play an active role in the current climate crisis.

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

AK: I am not really sure. I think managing our impact on the world has always been — and will always be — something to be cognizant of. I think we may have lost touch with it for a long while as we industrialized the planet. I don’t think there is a metric of success that the climate needs to meet. Instead, I think the metrics of success would be how people see their role in maintaining a healthy planet.

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

AK: I think a greater effort to understand what may most benefit those disadvantaged or disproportionately affected by climate change will be very important. I think as a nation we are starting to be more aware of the inequities that exist, but we must be diligent in how we combat climate change in a way that doesn’t increase those inequities. I think in New Mexico we have an opportunity to engage with those across the state and really take a holistic approach to aid communities that need help. I would love to see a climate action program that allows for communities to submit climate-related action items, similar to the New Mexico Small Business Assistance concept.

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

AK: I would tell them that they could be a part of addressing the most significant challenges life on Earth has faced. The more people who are focused on addressing climate change, the most likely we will be able to manage its effects and prevent further damage.

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

AK: I think conversation in everyday life is important. Formal education on the topic is definitely very important, but it shouldn’t feel like a research topic. The climate crisis is something that affects everyone all the time, and we should think about it throughout our day. There are small decisions that we can make that can go a long way — in addition to holding ourselves accountable, we should also hold corporations and nation states accountable for their impact on the climate. It is a collective effort, it is an existential crisis, and it is one that will persist throughout our lifetimes so we must engage with it on all levels.

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