Prerana Panchumarti was always intrigued by how things worked since she was a child. When she decided to take her inquisitiveness into the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) field, she chose to focus on materials science, which she said was all about solving problems. Subsequently, with the ever-rising global cost that pollution inflicts every year, Panchumarti had a big problem to solve.
Late into her studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Panchumarti applied for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) Energy Storage Internship Program. This program is part of a cohort of internships sponsored by the EERE Advanced Manufacturing Office.
The Energy Storage Internship Program offers hands-on, practical research and development projects focused on energy storage at U.S. national laboratories. Having developed a new interest in computer science alongside her study in materials science, Panchumarti saw this program as having elements of both and knew that it would put all her skills to good use. Under the guidance of her mentor, Nitin Muralidharan, Ph.D., an R&D associate staff scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Panchumarti spent her internship researching the efficiency of composite
cathodes in solid-state batteries. Solid-state batteries, which incorporate solid electrolyte and multi-component cathodes, rather than the liquid electrolyte present in lithium-ion batteries, have potential use in electric cars and vehicles. Improved battery performance in electric transportation is an intuitive pathway to reducing carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions.
“The transportation sector accounts for approximately 28 percent of CO2 emissions,” she explained with data provided by her mentor. “Transportation, especially light vehicles, show high potential for electrification via solid state batteries, which would substantially reduce emissions. Unfortunately, current solid-state batteries face several challenges, including energy densities that are lower than required for vehicle use.”
Panchumarti believes that the research she and her mentor performed is essential to the energy landscape of the United States.
Through her time in the program, Panchumarti developed good skills and habits as a scientist. Experimenting remotely can be a challenge; however, through the restrictions of not having in-person lab access, Panchumarti learned how to keep her research isolated to her work desk. With this, she was able to focus better during the internship, as well as focus in her college courses.
“I liken it to advice given to insomniacs—refrain from doing anything other than sleeping in your bed, because otherwise your brain develops bad habits. This habit helped me retain focus during the project and has spread to my college life,” Panchumarti explained.
Panchumarti recommends the Energy Storage Internship Program to STEM students who want to experience the sophistication of a national lab and make connections. By exploring the available paths a scientist can take after academia, a new world of scientific inquiry awaits potential STEM interns.
Since her internship ended in 2021, Panchumarti has made plans to advance her career to a full-time materials processes and physics engineer at Boeing. She has also since received the Best Overall Project for Materials Science and Engineering award alongside her team at the Georgia Tech Capstone Design Expo 2022.
From an inborn thirst for knowledge to advancing the efficiency of consumer batteries, Panchumarti’s curiosity is sure to continue taking her to new heights.
The EERE Energy Storage Internship Program is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO) and administered through the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.