Q&A with Robynne Murray: Rebel with a cause and an ice ax
Manufacturing Brains Series with Robynne Murray
“Chulilla, Spain! Murray replied.
In a video posted a few days later, Murray grips a pale, sandy rock wall with a chalk bag strapped to his back. Quicker than the blink of an eye, she reaches for another skinny hold, but her fingers slip, whipping her in a quick but controlled arc as her belayer catches her fall. The week before, Murray was climbing very different rocks – the snow-capped Alps – on a 6-day ski tour called the Haute Route. Before that? More rocks – ice-covered rocks, Italian rocks, rocks from Montana, Colorado, and Zion National Park in Utah.
For anyone who knows Murray, none of this is surprising. Growing up in Canada, she literally got her hands dirty digging clams in the Bay of Fundy. Even in his lab at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the mechanical engineer likes to get his hands dirty, fabricating and evaluating new materials – like recyclable plastics and carbon fiber – for wind and tidal turbines and electric vehicles. Today, if she’s not struggling with a rock or ice, she’s probably struggling with molds and resins in the lab.
Murray has already achieved great success in both. In climbing, she recently attempted a 7c+ climb (9 is the max) in Spain called Siempre Se Puede Hacer Menos or “You can always do less” (Murray clearly disagrees). And in the lab, her and the NREL team Composites Manufacturing Technology and Education Facility (CoMET) concocted a award-winning thermoplastic resin that can be used to build recyclable wind turbine blades.
In this Manufacturing Masterminds Q&A, Murray talks about his latest outdoor adventures, building plastics from sugars instead of traditional fossil fuels, being “a little rebellious” in high school, and knowing if she believes in free will. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
I always ask: do you have a science origin story? Was there a moment when you knew you wanted to get into science?
I don’t have one of those amazing origin stories. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I loved being outdoors; I care a lot about the environment, our climate and the preservation of nature. I also like math and science, so in high school one of my teachers said to me, “Oh, you could be a mechanical engineer. It combines everything you love.
And that was it?
I realized that with Mechanical Engineering, I could use my math and physics skills to do something meaningful. When I started my PhD. tidal power program, I had never heard of tidal power before. But the industry caught my eye right away. There were so many challenges. It’s like taking a wind turbine and putting it under water. You have to rethink almost everything.
You have obtained your doctorate. from Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada. How did you come to NREL from there?
Throughout my studies, I constantly referred to NREL documents, reports and articles. I thought, “Man, NREL does such cool research. But I’m just a little girl from Nova Scotia. I will never end up there.
And yet, there you are.
I owe it to bob the thresher. I was at the International Ocean Energy Conference in Halifax, Canada, when I met him and Levi Kilcher. Bob was so curious about my research. He gave me his contact details and said, “Call me. Let’s talk about your postdoctoral fellowship.
And that was it – again. Do you think your younger self would have been surprised to know that you would end up at NREL?
I would have been so excited, but I probably wouldn’t have believed it. I was a little rebellious in high school. If I had known that I would be doing something useful and meaningful in my life, I would have had a lot more confidence back then. I thought I wasn’t good enough.
Clearly you are. But wait, tell me more about that rebel thing.
When I was in high school, I didn’t know you could be cool and smart. I had good grades, but I just wanted to party and fit in with the “cool kids”. My parents wanted me to go to this science and entrepreneurial program called Shad Canada, and my mom ended up putting me together because she wanted me to go so badly. When I was accepted, I didn’t want to go, but somehow they convinced me. Shad Canada was also a really cool, unique, interesting and really smart bunch of people. It completely changed the way I viewed myself. I realized that I could be proud of being smart and not try to hide it.
So it turns out you have an origin story.
Actually, yeah. I guess so, and I owe a lot to my amazing parents.
Now that you are a full engineer at NREL, what are you working on?
I mainly work on the design and testing of recyclable materials for wind and tidal turbine blades and even for vehicles. It started with thermoplastic materials, which can create less expensive wind turbine blades which are more reliable and more easily recyclable. We can also produce more durable and cost-effective tidal turbine blades that can survive longer in salt water.
But I’m really excited about our new material, a bioresin designed here at NREL that we can make from sugar stock or other biomaterials. It is recyclable, like thermoplastics, but also made from non-petroleum products, helping to decarbonize the energy sector.
I get why these materials would be super useful for the wind power and tidal power industries, but you also mentioned electric cars?
Yes, battery weight in electric cars adds up, and lighter vehicles lead to more efficient vehicles. Lightweight carbon fiber can help build lighter weight
vehicles, but to decarbonize the manufacturing process, we need to use that carbon over multiple life cycles. Our new material could be used in carbon fiber composites to build lighter vehicles while improving the ductility and safety you need. It is also recyclable.
In an ideal world, what would you like to see for clean energy industries, like tidal power?
In an ideal world, tidal energy devices will stay underwater for 20 years, produce affordable energy, provide strong and reliable jobs, and be made from durable materials. In reality, we have a long way to go. We need rugged devices where the probability of failure is low, and we’re just not there yet. We need stronger, more predictable materials and systems.
Is there anything about the technological development that surprised you?
How difficult it is. Even when you have an amazing team of people, things can still go wrong, and it’s always something you didn’t plan for.
Right. I know your recent Verdant Power Partnership, in which you deployed thermoplastic blades on their tidal turbine in New York’s East River, ran into a few problems: everything worked, but you didn’t get the data you wanted. Are you considering giving it another chance?
I hope so. Verdant Power has removed their device from this site. But we hope to deploy a set of composite tidal turbine blades – designed and manufactured at NREL – on University of New Hampshire Living Bridge Test Site (a collaboration with Sandia National Laboratories). This entire project – everything from material selection, blade composite design, structure and testing performance – will also be fully open source.
When you’re not getting your hands dirty in the lab, what do you usually do?
Just completed the Haute Route – a ski tour from Chamonix, France to Zermatt, Switzerland.
Yeah, that was a pretty epic 6 day undertaking. You stay in small mountain huts along the way. It was beautiful and really difficult.
Kind of like hiking the Appalachian Trail?
Yes, but on skis.
Let’s go back to your first great love in the natural world – your hometown’s Bay of Fundy. In a Profile 2021you said that putting devices in fast tides, like those in the bay, is like trying to put a man on the moon before you can fly.
Yeah. We have a long way to go to get to the moon. But being able to evolve to a cleaner energy source would benefit, well, the Earth, which benefits us.
Want to know more about Robynne Murray? Check out NREL’s video interview with her, titled “Day in the life: Robynne Murray.”
By Caitlin McDermott-Murphy. Article courtesy of National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).
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