Corps interns advancing sustainable energy solutions

By Saemmool Lee

Chemistry major Priscilla Zhang has spent the summer interning at Imprint Energy, an advanced materials company commercializing a revolutionary printed battery technology in Alameda. She is one of 13 students this year in the eight-year-old Cal Energy Corps program, now housed in CITRIS within the California Institute for Energy and Environment. The program offers Berkeley undergraduates the opportunity to participate in hands-on research for sustainable energy solutions in the U.S. and abroad.

“We conduct research and development of batteries which would entail battery printing,” Zhang writes in the Cal Energy Corps’ blog. “Tasks include taking roughness, thickness and various other measurements. I was able to spend a significant amount of time helping with the preparation for printing.”

Imprint Energy has hosted a total of seven interns through the Cal Energy Corps for six years. “Working with the interns has been really important in helping us solve problems and bringing in a new point of view,” says Christine Ho, co-founder and CEO of Imprint Energy. “The interns come very motivated,” she says. “They are very excited to work in the energy space and are eager to experience what it’s like to work in an intense startup environment.”

Ho earned her bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. degrees from Berkeley. “I was an undergraduate researcher and also hosted a lot of interns when I was a graduate student,” she says. “I know how much the opportunity and experience can completely change your life. I’d love to expose many students to these incredible opportunities.”

Since it originated in the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research in 2011, the Cal Energy Corps program has sent over 100 Berkeley students off to eight-week (or longer) summer internships to work on energy and climate research. Under CITRIS this summer, the program has 13 Corps members working on designing high-energy-density lithium-ion systems, developing power electronics devices for renewable energy integration, and predicting the effect of climate extremes on California’s water supply, among other projects.

The interns have been writing blog posts with updates on the progress of their work.

“Something I learned this week: Sometimes in science, your initial interpretations are incorrect, and in order to allow science to progress and to really even call it science you have to own up to when you are wrong,” blogs T.G. Roberts, an energy engineering student working at Power Standards Lab. “This often leads to even better developments, simply due to the fact that they are based on fact. But sometimes it is hard to admit when your first instinct/impression was wrong, especially when people have already been told about the result.”

The Cal Energy Corps has a founding philosophy that energy and climate issues are part of a larger global crisis, and pursues international exchanges and partnerships to better understand the problems and collaborate on solutions. Tecnológico de Monterrey, a CITRIS partner organization in Mexico, has become an international host this year.

Mechanical engineering major Bianca Champenois (pictured below) reports on her experience at Tec: “This is very different from the environment I am used to at school where I constantly have assignments, tests, and deadlines,” she says. “I like this change in pace because it allows me to invest more time and attention into the things I am doing, so that I can do a more thorough job and have a deeper understanding of the project at hand.”

The program encourages anyone with a passion for energy and climate issues from all disciplines and majors to apply to the program (though some hosts may have specific major preferences, as indicated in their respective position descriptions).

“It’s exciting to be learning something so totally new,” writes Lillian Holmes, a student of English and Environmental Economics and Policy interning at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “I feel like I’m forcing my brain to operate in a new way — which feels good the way eating vegetables or lifting weights does (it kinda hurts but you know it’s good for you),” she says.

To participate in the program, students submit an online application, which includes a transcript, statement of purpose, letter of recommendation, and top three placement choices. “A committee reviews the fit to the internships they are requesting,” says Tracy Turner, operations director at the California Institute for Energy and Environment, which manages the Cal Energy Corps at CITRIS.

“I think there is a great opportunity to tap into a pipeline of very enthusiastic and bright students to make sure that they stay connected to the energy challenges that we all have,” says Horst Simon, deputy director for research at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Simon has decided to fund seven Cal Energy Corps interns this summer. “I hope that they get hands-on experience about what it means to work in research and see this as a career opportunity,” he says.

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