By Jules Bernstein

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Secretary Perry and Sandia: A science alliance

Buried within U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry’s impressive biography is a little-known fact: he was once a yell leader for Texas A&M University. On a recent tour through California, Secretary Perry said he’s now reprising that role, but this time it’s in service of the national laboratories.

Kicking off his two-day tour through Livermore, the former Texas governor explained how this past year as Energy secretary has deeply affected him. “I have found this great new passion in my life, and that is to be a supporter and cheerleader, a proponent of these national jewels,” he said, referring to the DOE laboratories.

This comment set the tone for his all-hands meeting at Lawrence Livermore National Lab hosted jointly by its director, Bill Goldstein, and Sandia Director Steve Younger. There, he touched on the challenges of recruiting and the need to develop multiple sources of energy to meet growing demand.

Competition for top talent

The secretary acknowledged the difficulty of recruiting in California, with its sky-high cost of living. Though he joked that Texas can’t compete with the Golden State in terms of weather or wine, he stressed the necessity of legislative action to keep California competitive.

He also wondered aloud how to “make nuclear cool again,” since weapons work was a popular choice for the bright students of his generation, but is less so today. That’s why it was with surprise and delight he noticed the apparent youth of the engineers assembled for his visit to the W80-4 life extension suite.

Many of the engineers in the room appeared to be under 35, and the secretary complimented them for choosing a career with impacts that would continue for decades. He also expressed gratitude to everyone in the weapons program, particularly in the face of increased work that will be required of them due to the recent nuclear posture review.

Among DOE’s recruitment solutions are its veteran training programs. Perry proudly noted that 40 percent of DOE employees are veterans, whom he said make great team members because they understand dedication to a mission.

NO MAGNET NEEDED — Amanda Dodd, manager of Energy Innovation, explains Twistact, a spinning electrical-contact device designed by Sandia. It eliminates the need for rare-earth magnets in wind-turbine power generators. Secretary Perry holds a small, moving replica of the Twistact device.  (Photo by Randy Wong)

Fueling the country’s future

The secretary also made it clear at the all-hands that to meet projected future demands, the U.S. will require a healthy supply of all forms of energy, including renewables. He proudly noted that during his tenure as governor, Texas saw more growth in wind energy than any state in the nation.

He urged fans of renewable energy in the room not to panic over proposed federal budget cuts, because budgets often are subject to intense negotiations and change. “The joke in Austin is that the governor’s budget makes a really good doorstop,” he said.

Later during the site tour, manager Paul Miles of Engine Combustion explained that Sandia is modifying its diesel research laboratories to study natural gas combustion in medium- and heavy-duty engines.

Paul said the challenge with natural gas is closing the efficiency gap with diesel. The secretary was enthusiastic about this work, relating Sandia’s research to the extensive infrastructure for natural gas delivery that he helped develop in Texas. 

Additional highlights of his tour included a demonstration of Twistact, a Sandia-designed device for wind energy turbines that operates without the use of rare-earth magnets, by manager Amanda Dodd of Energy Innovation. Amanda also showed Perry the Sandia Cooler, a rotating cooling unit for electronics that is faster, smaller and quieter than current state-of-the-art electronics coolers.

Throughout it all, the secretary remained thoroughly upbeat about the labs, and reiterated his commitment to making sure the laboratories have the resources to continue their work for years to come.

“Hosting Secretary Perry today was truly a pleasure,” said Associate Labs Director Dori Ellis. “He made clear that his commitment to the laboratories is unwavering, and that in him we have a strong, effective advocate for our mission of solving the nation’s security and energy challenges.”