Dr. Stanley Atcitty, left, and Dr. Imre Gyuk, right, at the Smithsonian, following the 2012 PECASE awards ceremony. | Photo courtesy of the Energy Department's Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability.

Dr. Stanley Atcitty, an energy storage systems researcher at Sandia National Laboratories, was recently named a winner of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). Dr. Atcitty was nominated by the Energy Department’s Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability for advances in power electronics for the electric grid including the development of a high-temperature silicon-carbide power module and an ultra-high-voltage silicon-carbide thyristor, for research on grid integration of energy storage, and for mentorship in the Native American community.

Dr. Atcitty was one of 13 researchers funded by the Energy Department that received the PECASE, the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on outstanding scientists and engineers who are early in their independent research careers. 

Recently, Dr. Atcitty sat down with Dr. Imre Gyuk, Energy Storage Program Manager in the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, to talk about his experiences in the Navajo community, the impact of power electronics on the nation’s electric grid, and what led him to engineering.

Q: Stan, tell us about your childhood on the Navajo reservation.

Dr. Stanley Atcitty: I grew up in Shiprock, New Mexico, and I’m the youngest of three children raised by a single mother. Life is definitely different there. During my younger years, we had no running water. We used a barrel filled with water from a community water supply for all the cooking and washing. My family didn’t have much money, so my mother wove and sold Navajo rugs at a local trading post for grocery money.

Since my mother and family members spoke Navajo exclusively, I naturally spoke our language with English becoming my second language. I’m the first generation in my family to pursue a college career. The Navajo reservation community is a very close-knit one, and I had to discover on my own how to leave such a community as I pursued my college career.

Q: What inspired you to become an engineer?

SA: The earliest I can remember, I was fascinated with how things worked and operated. I used to dismantle toys and build them back up. Since we didn’t have a lot of income, I used to build my own bicycles from salvaged parts picked out from the local junkyard. I think it has always been a part of me.

My college education started at a local college where I chose engineering as my major since I enjoyed math and science courses. When I transferred to New Mexico State University, I felt I couldn’t compete with the other engineering students. But during a power electronics course, I realized that I understood the concepts very well. And when one of the top students asked me to help solve a technical problem, I realized I could compete academically with my peers. This newfound confidence encouraged me to attain higher goals, which ultimately led me to pursue my Ph. D. at Virginia Tech.

Q: Why did you join Sandia and become part of our GridEnergy Storage Group?

SA: Prior to working on power electronics for energy storage applications, I worked on electric infrastructure energy optimization at Sandia and weapon power electronics and subcomponents. My involvement with the Energy Storage Program started when I wrote a report on the state-of-the-art power conversion systems for energy storage applications in 1998. Since then, I have been part of the electricity storage research team supporting the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability (OE).

Q: Tell me about your research at Sandia and your interest in “post-silicon” devices.

SA: First of all, power electronics is found in just about everything -- from small battery chargers for laptops to large megawatt-scalecontrollers -- for controlling power on the electric grid. The goal of the electric power grid is to supply reliable power to customers. Power electronics will play a key role in increasing the reliability, security and flexibility of future power grids.

Current systems use silicon-based semiconductors, but they have limitations that reduce their suitability in utility-scale applications. Post-silicon devices have become an attractive alternative because they have higher blocking voltage, switching speeds and operating temperatures, and lower switching losses compared to silicon.

Q: So what are the systems advantages of post-silicon devices?

SA: Post-silicon devices can lead to a power conversion system that is more robust, reliable, and ultimately less costly. They can have a smaller footprint, have less cooling requirements and have better AC waveform output when integrated with the grid. As a result, the grid can perform with better flexibility and control, and operate more reliably and efficiently.

Q: Can you tell me more about your four R&D100 awards?

SA: One metric of success is obtaining a prestigious R&D100 Award. Under my leadership, four projects funded by OE have won R&D100 awards. Collaboration with industry and universities is a vital and integral part of the Energy Storage Program, and knowing when to pursue a research idea with the right team members is key to having a successful project.  

Q: I see you have been featured in a children’s book on Energy Basics. Can you tell us more about it, Stan?

SA: I was approached by Sally Ride Science in late 2010 and was featured in a science book focusing on energy aimed for middle school students. Sally Ride was an inspiration to the science community and the world. I share her passion of reaching out to students, especially American Indian students.

I’m so grateful to her and to Sally Ride Books for the opportunity to contribute to “Energy Basics, Energized!” which was published in April 2012. The book is providing me with unique opportunities to reach out to students of all ages.

Q: What does receiving the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) mean to you?

SA: Winning R&D100 awards, getting patents, and other technical awards is one thing, but receiving an award from the President of the United States is definitely a highlight of my career.

Q: Where do you see your career headed after receiving this award?

SA: I think it is two-fold: continue R&D in the area of power electronics devices and systems for grid and off-grid applications; and leverage my expertise in energy systems to educate and to provide technical assistance to Tribal energy projects around the nation. Being able to describe a technical system, in some cases using my native Navajo language, to the users on the reservations has been a very fulfilling and gratifying experience. Mentoring students, especially American Indian students, will always be an important part of my career.