Welcome: Arctic Innovator Dr. Nathan Prisco
October 5, 2020
The Arctic Innovator program sponsors innovators and entrepreneurs for two years to split their time between UAF and a national lab as they develop their technologies and pursue commercialization. The first Arctic Innovator, Dr. Nathan Prisco, started on Sept. 14 and will be working on an ammonia-based technology with the potential to transform Alaska’s energy economy and satisfy growing demand for cleaner fuels in the maritime industry (click here for DNV GL’s market outlook report).
“The recent International Maritime Organization’s 2020 low-sulfur mandate has resulted in more expensive fuel for the shipping industry. In the short term, this demand can largely be met, but future regulations will favor fuel-switching to either LNG or alternatives. Ammonia has emerged as a top contender because it is cheap, sulfur-free, and is a zero-carbon fuel liquid … As an energy carrier, ammonia makes it possible to export renewable energy in a manner similarly to LNG,” said Prisco, who recently graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a PhD in chemical engineering.
This program, formally titled the Arctic Advanced Manufacturing Innovator Program, gives innovators and entrepreneurs with a graduate degree in a STEM-related field multiple resources and guidance to maximize their likelihood of success. Innovators get to work in national labs with chosen mentors, they receive top-notch commercialization support, and they have the adventure of living in Alaska while working on arctic-related challenges.
This program is sponsored by DOE’s Advanced Manufacturing Office and is a collaboration with the University of Alaska Fairbanks. To learn more about the program, visit the website or email email@example.com.
Mark Billingsley (OIPC): Where did you go to college, and what were your interests?
Nathan Prisco: I did my undergraduate in Austin, TX which, 200 miles to the south, seemed very far from my hometown in Aledo, TX at the time. In college, I focused on research, classes, and served as the Director of a 120 member student housing cooperative. The student housing cooperatives were a way to insulate students from expensive housing prices and encourage a diverse learning environment. Housing cooperatives are similar to dorms, however, the residents are part-owners of the building and participate in an organized labor system that encompasses building maintenance, furniture construction, cleaning, and food operations. My fondest memories include trips to Lady Bird lake, floating the San Marcos River, and taking advantage of the incredible swimming pools at UT Austin. Later, in graduate school at the University of California, Santa Barbara I took every opportunity to backpack through the Sierra Nevada range and Los Padres National forest.
MB: What is your undergraduate degree in?
NP: Chemical Engineering at the University of Texas, Austin, which is primarily focused on downstream processes and operations in the petrochemical industry. However, in my research, I mostly focused on polymer science for the microelectronic industry. In the summers, I also conducted U.S. Department of Energy supported biofuel research in both Wisconsin and Colorado focused on making renewable chemicals from agricultural waste. After graduation, I spent a year working as an engineering consultant for LP Amina in Beijing, China working on addressing air quality issues (e.g., de-NOx) in the coal power sector. Since then I have been interested in reducing the carbon footprint of heavy industries that are not easily electrified. My Ph.D. work, supported by Halliburton, the US Federal Highway Administration, and the Army Corps of Engineers, was focused on developing low carbon footprint concretes inspired by ancient Roman formulations. To understand how these materials worked, I used advanced magnetic resonance techniques like those that are applied in medical imaging and in the nascent field of quantum computing.
MB: What are you looking forward to most about living in Alaska?
NP: The experience of winter! Having spent most of my life in either Texas or Southern California I have been very limited in my winter experiences. I am excited to try combining backpacking with cross-country skating or skiing. I have downloaded an app on my phone which gives me an alert whenever there is a chance to see the Northern lights, still no luck yet but I keep running outside to check.
MB: Had you ever been to Alaska before now?
NP: Although this is my first time in Alaska, I certainly feel like I have been here before. My mother took a trip to Alaska a few years back and all the pictures decorate the walls of the family home back in Aledo. I told my nieces and nephews that now I live down the street from Santa Claus’ house in North Pole so now they are excited to visit me.
MB: Tell us a little about your technology, and what do you see as the path to commercialization?
NP: The recent International Maritime Organization’s 2020 low-sulfur mandate has resulted in more expensive fuel for the shipping industry. In the short term, this demand can largely be met, but future regulations will favor fuel-switching to either LNG or alternatives. Ammonia has emerged as a top contender because it is cheap, sulfur-free, and is a zero-carbon fuel liquid. We know that Alaska’s North Slope can accommodate this demand as there is a large carbon sequestration potential, untapped heavy oil reserves, and over 35 TCF of proven natural gas reserves. To encourage industry-scale development, I am pursuing novel enhanced oil recovery and pipeline technologies based on an anhydrous ammonia platform. Importantly, this will leverage current infrastructure, deliver value to existing North Slope operations, and attract industry partners. Alaska is an energy juggernaut, after a methane-derived ammonia (a.k.a., “blue ammonia”) fuel industry is established, renewable ammonia (a.k.a., “green ammonia”) can be gradually implemented by investments in hydropower and off-shore wind. As an energy carrier, ammonia makes it possible to export renewable energy in a manner similar to LNG.
MB: Why were you interested in the Arctic Innovator program?
NP: I think everybody is intrigued by Alaska, both in its pristine wilderness and the feeling that there is an incredible opportunity in the last frontier. I was not familiar with lab-embedded innovation programs prior to applying, but they are a great way to get science out of the laboratory and into the world at large.
MB: How did you choose to work with PNNL?
NP: When I began the process, my proposal had generated interest at several national labs. For my project, PNNL was a no brainer, they have a strong focus on sub-surface technologies, material science, and environmental science. They also manage very large projects including nuclear waste remediation at the Hanford site. My collaborator, Dr. Carlos Fernandez, is the sub-surface team lead and has recently commercialized an environmentally benign polymer platform that can enhance the productivity of geothermal wells. This technology alone could have a huge impact for Alaska, including at the Chena Hot Springs geothermal power plant.
MB: I know you’ve only been at this for a week or two, but what have you been doing as an Arctic Innovator?
NP: I am still at home since I am under the 14-day quarantine, however, I have had teleconferences with the Center ICE office, UAF professors, and industry contacts. These meetings have ranged from technical discussions to networking sessions with local entrepreneurs. When getting started in any research project, or now lab-embedded innovation program, I think the most important thing to do is to survey the field. For now, I am preparing for Alaska’s foundational I-Corps program which will give me the chance to validate my business model prior to expending precious resources on technology development.