Sridhar Seetharaman’s parents didn’t want him to become a physicist.

“My parents are from a different generation,” said Seetharaman, who moved from India to Sweden with his family when he was only 1 year old. “Their immediate challenge was just surviving. They thought I’d never get a job in physics.” 

The Industrious series highlights outstanding individuals working with the Industrial Efficiency and Decarbonization Office to implement meaningful change in the industrial sector.

To Seetharaman’s parents, physics was an impractical, abstract endeavor and not a path to survival. But engineering? Engineers build things. They get jobs. The world needs engineers. 

So, Seetharaman became an engineer. And his parents would be proud: He doesn’t have a job. He has several. He’s also working to fix one of the most concrete, fundamental challenges our world faces today: industrial pollution.

Over 30% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions are from heavy industry,” Seetharaman said. “And that’s limited to a couple of industries: chemicals and petrochemicals, iron and steel, cement, paper and pulp, and food and beverage.”  

Sridhar Seetharaman presenting at a podium as viewed from the audience
Sridhar Seetharaman spoke about his efforts at Arizona State University’s Melani Walton Center for Planetary Health in 2023.
Photo from Andy DeLisle, ASU Knowledge Enterprise

Today, Seetharaman is the vice dean for research and innovation in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. And in May 2023, he was appointed the director of a new U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Clean Energy Manufacturing Innovation Institute, which is funded by DOE’s Industrial Efficiency and Decarbonization Office

The institute, called Electrified Processes for Industry Without Carbon (or EPIXC, for short), supports DOE’s Industrial Heat Shot™, which aims to fight greenhouse gas emissions associated with process heating. Process heating is used in manufacturing to pasteurize milk and cream, melt steel, produce cement, and much more. Through the Industrial Heat Shot, DOE aims to develop cost-competitive technologies that could lower greenhouse gas emissions associated with this process by at least 85% by 2035.  

If successful, that technological shift would make a huge impact. Process heating is so ubiquitous in the industrial world that it’s responsible for about a third of industry’s total greenhouse gas emissions and nearly 10% of the world’s.  

And that pollution doesn’t impact everyone equally. 

“There are many ways of going from what we have today to net zero, But it has to be done in a responsible way so it doesn't affect people who are already disadvantaged.”  –Sridhar Seetharaman

“Petrochemical and chemical plants have largely been sited around redlining areas, along Cancer Alley, things like that,” Seetharaman said. “The people around those plants have taken the brunt of the pollution.” 

"Cancer Alley” refers to a region along the Mississippi River in Louisiana where heavy industrial development is linked to toxic air pollution. The residents have the highest cancer risk in the nation, a risk that disproportionately impacts Black communities. 

Seetharaman wants to help fix that.  

Through EPIXC, he aims to help industries both transition from fossil fuel to clean electricity and address community needs and wants. For example, he and his team are already talking to: Tribal Nations who could build solar hubs for food production, workers and their families in Appalachia who depend on coal plants that are likely to close, and people who live in high pollution zones, like areas of Texas or Louisiana’s Cancer Alley. Seetharaman wants to know: How could clean industries improve the quality of their air, water, jobs, and lives? How could this next energy transition be more equitable? 

“There are many ways of going from what we have today to net zero,” Seetharaman said. “But it has to be done in a responsible way so it doesn't affect people who are already disadvantaged.” 

In some ways, Seetharaman’s work fits his parent’s original philosophy about survival: The challenge is just surviving. But how we survive matters. 

Seetharaman shares what Sweden taught him about sustainability, why he spent time working in a steel mill, and what common misconceptions he often hears about industrial decarbonization. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

 

A headshot of Sridhar Seetharaman next to icons of industrial infrastructure and the label "Industrious"

What’s your origin story? Was there a moment in your childhood that pushed you toward clean energy? 

Probably not a distinct event. I don’t look like it, but I grew up in Sweden. And even when I was a child, sustainability and environmental consciousness was ingrained in our society.  

How so? What’s an example of how Sweden prioritizes sustainability over, say, the United States? 

Sweden is more about environmental consciousness and social equity. You don’t live in large houses; you recycle, use public transportation, and minimize waste. So, per citizen, your environmental footprint is less than in the United States. You’re not consciously making that choice; it's just the way everybody is.

Did this sustainability mindset impact your career? 

Yes. When you get trained as a materials scientist in Sweden, you optimize a material for its performance, but you also ask, “Is it recyclable or sustainable? What consequences will it have?” You learn to think about that bigger picture. And, when you study engineering in Sweden, it’s mandatory that you learn about industrial ecology and its hazards, including health hazards. Depending on the discipline, you also spend your summers working in those industries, often on the actual shop floor. In my case, this involved understanding worker conditions in metallurgical plants. If you become a decision maker, you should understand that, right? 

Sridhar Seetharaman standing on a rocky cliff with a dog and child
Sridhar Seetharaman—seen here with his husky, Floki, and daughter, Lamia—grew up in Sweden where sustainability is more ingrained in everyday society. Now, he supports the Industrial Efficiency and Decarbonization Office.
Photo from Sridhar Seetharaman, Industrial Efficiency and Decarbonization Office

Can you tell us a bit about your current work? 

I’m the CEO of EPIXC, Electrified Processes for Industry without Carbon, which aims to replace all fossil-fuel-based heating with electric heating. Over 30% of greenhouse gas emissions are from heavy industry and much of that is just heating. So, industry is a major part of combating climate change, which is perhaps the largest threat we’re facing today. Industry must adjust, but it also has to stay competitive.  

That affects jobs and livelihoods, right? You may locate plants in completely different places if you’re thinking about hydrogen electrons. And you need to think about how you transition in a way that’s sustainable for people and communities too. 

Tell us more about that. Why is it important to consider communities in this transition? 

I would argue that past energy transitions have not been equitable. The people living around petrochemical and chemical plants have taken the brunt of the pollution. Even now, coal plant closures are affecting communities in the Appalachian Mountains and Tribal areas in the Southwest. A clean energy manufacturing institute, like EPIXC, offers a way for governments, public universities, and corporations to guide the energy transition in a sustainable and economically viable manner. 

Maybe you can’t answer this yet, but what does that look like in practice? How do we ensure industry’s clean energy transition is equitable? 

That’s what our institute will hopefully help solve. New industries will be developed based on new electron and hydrogen supply chains. We should build these supply chains so communities can be part of them, accept them, see their advantages, and get jobs. At the same time, between now and 2050, there will be uncertainties. Everything is changing. Our grid is changing. Our energy mixture is changing. The need and demand for electricity is changing. We have to find a way to give industries time to adopt clean energy. So, maybe they start with hybrid technologies and transition in stages. 

We also have to look at long-term benefits. Currently, you look at what a technology does for a plant in terms of profit. But there might be other issues to consider, such as particulate emissions. What does that do to the workers and communities? What are the healthcare costs? What is the cost of unemployment? Those impacts must be factored into decisions.  

Seetharaman sitting at a table in a restaurant
Sridhar Seetharaman is working with tribal communities to make it useful through, for example, solar power plants that power food production or other industries.
Photo from Sridhar Seetharaman, Industrial Efficiency and Decarbonization Office

What are some common misconceptions about industrial decarbonization? 

Most people and industries want to go from point A to point B, but those paths have not been charted out yet. We need to figure out which path is the easiest, what rate we need to go, and how we avoid leaving anybody behind. The other misconception has to do with price. Natural gas is just so cheap. Can we beat that with clean technologies? Yes, but a lot of industries can't afford to deploy them yet. There’s too much risk. Ultimately, solutions need to involve the entire supply chain, from utilities to manufacturers to end users and customers—and innovators, of course! 

When you talk to communities, what are their reactions to these upcoming changes in U.S. industry? 

Communities in Texas and Cancer Alley are, of course, interested. They want better paying jobs, and we are working with them to create those. A bigger challenge is how we address the needs of Tribal areas, especially in the Southwest. We can provide training for them to get jobs outside their communities, which is great for those individuals, but the communities get even more depleted, right? So, how do you build capacity for people who were given useless land to begin with? That’s a challenge, and it’s a tragic challenge, right? So, what industries can be created? Right now, there are a lot of solar projects in Tribal lands. That fills their immediate power needs. But later, they could build solar hubs for food production, building materials, things like that.  

What advice do you have for folks who might want to work in industrial decarbonization? 

Learn to quantify the broader impacts of your research. For example, if you’re working on a membrane for water purification, how could its price point impact communities? What could it do to arid areas? What’s the cost of the material? Do you have to mine something unethical? For a while, I didn’t think that way. But, working for the federal government, I learned a lot about how our investments can impact people or even the country. 

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