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June/July 2011



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Argonne National Labs promotes energy careers for Native Americans

Participants in the Indian Education Renewable Energy Challenge team up to engineer alternative energy solutions. Argonne mentors are paired with students in the summer internship program


Native American students at one high school and two colleges in Wisconsin and New Mexico are taking part in the second annual Indian Education Renewable Energy Challenge.

The challenge is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory (Argonne, IL) in partnership with the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) and Office of Indian Energy and Economic Development (IEED). The aim is to promote careers in the fields of green and renewable energy for students attending BIE-funded schools and tribal colleges.

Teams from the participating schools work to develop a system using renewable energy, focusing on designing and building a system for a specific challenge. The first year, teams were tasked with designing a portable wind turbine system. The 2011 project is to make biodiesel using raw biomass material. Participants will create a narrated video of the project, data on performance with a diesel generator and a 100-milliliter sample of the biodiesel fuel to be sent to Argonne in May for evaluation.

"Some of the research being done is astounding," says Eleanor Taylor, media relations specialist at Argonne.

The challenge leads to careers in energy
One of the winning teams in the 2010 challenge was Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI, Albuquerque, NM), a federally funded community college, one of the few in the U.S. Students from the engineering department, under the leadership of professor Nader Vadiee, submitted designs for vertical axis and horizontal axis wind turbines. They created CAD designs, built cardboard prototypes and received $2,500 from program sponsors for supplies to build their turbines.

"The students were so excited to be doing something completely from scratch," says Vadiee. "A lot of them are now pursuing civil engineering or renewable energy, and returning to their communities to help," he says.

Argonne targets Native Americans
Argonne is a nationally funded lab that employs about 1,000 scientists and engineers who work on world-class science and engineering to develop innovative technologies through its own research in energy storage, alternative energy and efficiency, and in nuclear energy. The lab also focuses on biological and environmental systems and national security.

Forging a strong relationship with American Indian and Alaska Natives has been a priority for the lab, which encourages internship applications from students who are members of federally recognized tribes.

Alternative energy and Native American interests are closely linked, explains Taylor. While tribal lands constitute about 5 percent, or 55 million acres, of the total land area in the U.S., it represents a much larger percentage of land with the potential for production of renewable energy. In fact, about 535 billion kilowatt hours of electricity could be produced on tribal land through the use of wind power plants and 17 trillion kilowatt hours from solar energy.

Summer internship program
Argonne has been working with the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) to educate American Indian and Alaska Native students about alternative energy production, and potentially groom them for future employment at the lab. In addition to the annual challenge, a summer internship program was launched in 2009 to recruit and train the next generation of tribal energy and natural resource management professionals.

Last year, two students, one from the University of New Mexico (Albuquerque, NM) and one from San Juan College (Farmington, NM), researched coal, natural gas, wind and solar energy technologies and evaluated their environmental impact on land, water and the potential generation of greenhouse gas emissions. Three more students from Little Big Horn College (Crow Agency, MT) took part in a geographic information systems project to identify the best site for a coal-to-liquids plant on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana.

Programs are fully funded
Twelve students completed last year's ten-week summer internship. To qualify for the program, students must be undergrads with a 2.5 or higher GPA and must be eighteen or older. Research projects involve wind energy, solar energy, fuel cells, hydrogen storage, advanced fuels, lithium batteries, environmental and economic systems analysis, production of chemicals from renewable resources, climate change and environmental impact assessments.

Local transportation and a weekly stipend are provided. On-site housing is free of charge. Those who live more than fifty miles from the lab are reimbursed for round trip costs to the facility.

The DOI's Office of Indian Affairs provides funding for the challenge and internship programs. While some of the students may go on to work at the lab, Taylor says, many are expected to take what they learned from the internship or challenge experiences and put it to work in their own tribal communities.

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