Dr. Yuliya Preger is a Senior Research and Development Chemical Engineer at Sandia National Laboratories in the Energy Storage Technology and Systems Group. Since joining Sandia in 2018, she has led research in Lithium ion (Li-on) battery safety and reliability, including long-term cycling of commercial batteries to understand what conditions enhance degradation and abuse testing to understand how battery aging influences safety. Yuliya also partners with power electronics engineers to develop better ways of managing batteries, including a patent-pending method for mitigating thermal runaway, and with power systems engineers to incorporate battery data into technoeconomic analysis of energy storage.
Yuliya is passionate about open sourcing battery data and software tools to aid energy storage analysis and cut down the development time for new technologies. One outcome of this interest is batteryarchive.org – the first public repository for easy visualization and comparison of battery degradation data across institutions. In the few months since launch, the site has been used by individuals across academia, industry, and utilities to understand how lithium ion batteries perform in different conditions and to save money in their own testing. Yuliya has a PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Bachelor of Science degree from MIT.
What inspired you to work in STEM?
I was originally unsure of what career I wanted to pursue. On a whim, I joined my high school’s FIRST robotics team and after three years I decided that engineering was the path for me. I became a chemical engineer rather than a mechanical or electrical engineer, but I still credit that team and our coach with getting me to where I am today.
What excites you about your work at the Energy Department?
Batteries and the electric grid power nearly all of modern life: charging phones, keeping lights on, treating water, and so much more. When it’s working well, we don’t have to think about it. But when the grid fails, there are dire consequences.
Since the electric grid powers so much of modern society, it’s meaningful work to me to make it more reliable. At Sandia, I appreciate the opportunity to do basic research while still working with external stakeholders to translate our findings into meaningful suggestions for them. Individuals at utilities, insurance companies, standards organizations, and other entities need to make important decisions about batteries, but they have questions like: Are particular batteries safer than others? Is there any data out there on Li-ion battery failure modes and rates in energy storage systems? Is there data to show correlation between battery life and depth of discharge? It’s a privilege to both discover and feel like those discoveries translate to real-world problems.
I also enjoy working on multidisciplinary teams and learning from my brilliant colleagues. So much intellectual “magic” happens when researchers from different fields come together. For example, I am a chemical engineer focusing on batteries for grid energy storage, but I share an office with an electrical engineer focusing on power electronics. Typically, power electronic engineers treat batteries as a black box, and the same for battery people with power electronics. But through collaboration, we have identified issues with integrating batteries and power electronics that neither of our individual fields has considered in great detail.
How can our country engage more women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in STEM?
In my experience, I think two key things are: 1) increasing representation of women and underrepresented groups in science (“if you can see it, you can be it”); and 2) creating more awareness about the opportunities for different skill sets and problems people can work on.
It’s impossible to explore a career path or investigate research questions if you are not even aware of what career paths or opportunities exist. For example, many people are not aware that you can actually get paid a livable stipend with free tuition to pursue a PhD in STEM. My FIRST robotics team and coach in high school made me aware of many of these opportunities, but not everyone has that sort of experience.
K-12 STEM outreach is critical to reach and connect to underrepresented minorities and women. Since undergrad, I’ve been involved in designing and implementing hands-on activities to get children involved in science, including organizing lab visits and research presentations to understand what a scientist or engineer does day-to-day. As engineers, we solve problems; by implementing hands-on demonstrations of how to design a better roller coaster, pharmaceutical formulation system, or even shoes, we can show how fun engineering is and evoke the natural curiosity and inquisitiveness that young people have.
Do you have tips you'd recommend for someone looking to enter your field of work?
Prior to entering any field, I think it is helpful to speak with people in that field to understand what the day-to-day work looks like. When I chose to major in chemical engineering, I assumed it would be a straightforward combination of chemistry and engineering. In reality, there was a greater emphasis on math and physics. Luckily, it all worked out.
To enter the field of energy and batteries specifically, I think a generally useful thing is to have a mix of hands-on and theoretical training – to be someone who can implement things that work but also understand how math says that they should work. This helps identify peculiarities of operation that lead to device improvements. Additionally, batteries/energy storage is a very broad field that extends into many sectors — for example, national labs, industry (including materials, manufacturing, products, etc.), and policy. It is worthwhile to consider what sector is the best place for the types of problems you are interested in working on.
Battery University is a great starting point — it’s a free website that teaches fundamentals about how batteries work and offers an in-depth introduction into the field.
When you have free time, what are your hobbies?
My husband and I spend a fair bit of time outdoors - hiking or working on the garden.
I previously operated a ‘Daily Plant Fact’ mailing list, sending out one plant fact a day for a full year, and have recently switched over to a ‘Daily Invention Fact’ theme. It’s been a big hit with family, friends, and colleagues.
Learn more about our programs & resources for women and girls in STEM at /women