Jake Herb grew up in southeastern Pennsylvania—an area known as Amish country—where 18-wheeler trucks share the road with horses. One day, sitting in the car with his parents and stuck at the only traffic light in town, 7-year-old Herb watched as a huge truck belched out what he called "sooty stuff" while a horse and buggy waited in the breakdown lane.

A young Jake Herb sitting on a tractor.

Growing up on the edge of Amish country, Jake Herb couldn't miss the difference between a big rig and a horse and buggy. Now, he's working to close that gap by delivering more clean energy, including water power, to the entire country.

Photo courtesy of Jake Herb

"Doesn’t everybody breathe in that stuff?" he asked his parents.

"Yep. That’s what happens," they told him.

"Maybe there’s another way," Herb thought.

Now, he’s hunting for one—or several. During his recent American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy fellowship with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office (WPTO), Herb helped develop programs to advance water power technologies, which could help reduce pollution in the country’s air, land, and water.

Herb spent his graduate years at Princeton University building more efficient and versatile batteries (including ones that could travel to the moon or into the deep ocean). But at WPTO, Herb thought about the flip side: “What happens after technologies are built? How do they get out into the world or onto the grid?”

"You can invent something cool, like a new battery or a wave energy device," Herb said, "and it can just sit on the shelf. The Journal of Things That Have Not Worked is about an infinite-volume long. So, for the technologies that do show promise in the lab, how can we make things that actually meet the goals of an end user such as a community or utility?"

During his fellowship, Herb helped the budding marine energy industry build technologies that serve real community needs. In other words, he worked to "find the right tool for the job," he said, whether that job was providing clean, renewable marine energy to coastal, rural, or island communities or playing even a small part in the fight against climate change.

In a recent interview, Herb shared how insects led him to science and why WPTO and the fellowship program has, as he said, "exceeded expectations."

The Amish sparked your interest in the environment, but how did you get curious about science, in general?

Ripple Effect

WPTO’s Ripple Effect series features individuals whose impactful work will help advance hydropower and marine energy technologies to achieve a clean energy future.

When I was 9 or 10 years old, my uncle got me a computer-connected electronic microscope, which was a big deal for 1998. I would go in our backyard and pick up little bugs, put them in a Petri dish, and compare them. What do the water beetles and water striders near the stream look like? Or the crickets next to the corn field?

And much to my parents’ dismay, any time I had an opportunity to take something apart, I did. I got a solar-powered windmill kit and, after a bit, took the motor apart. I wanted to know what was inside, and then I did not know how to put it back together. That’s usually how those things went.

And then, in high school, you got curious about chemistry?

I was a big old nerd. I was always curious about the nature of change—whether it was over short timescales, like mixing vinegar and baking soda, or much longer, like geological phenomena. I began to notice all these processes happening in the natural world, and I started wondering, “How can we harness that to make useful widgets while also being mindful and respectful of the environment?”

So, how did renewable energy fit in?

Jake Herb and his sister as young kids, standing on a dirt road near a field with cows grazing.

Jake said he was "a big old nerd" in high school when he began to notice that the Earth offered a huge number of naturally occurring phenomena, like ocean waves, that humans could harness to serve our needs while protecting the environment.

Photo courtesy of Jake Herb

Early in college, I knew I wanted to take part in our transition to renewable energy, but I was agnostic as to what that might look like. Would I be an engineer? A chemist? Develop biofuels? There is no question that fossil fuels store a lot of energy per unit volume or weight, but we are capable of so much more. We have access to so many scientific resources and tools that we can use to invent new materials. Why would we not use that to our advantage?

As a result, I initially decided to go into solar energy or batteries because they’re sort of two sides of the same coin—with one, you can collect energy from a limitless resource, and with the other, you can store that energy and transport it in different formats.

And you chose to study batteries in graduate school—why?

For the puzzle of figuring out the right tool for the job. For instance, I remember opening the hood of a car and thinking, “What is it about a lead acid battery? The design is 120 years old. Why are we still using them?” It’s because they can output a lot of current really quickly, and if it ain’t broke, don't fix it. For little things like that, I wanted to know: What is the rationale behind this?

Because you can’t make a better tool unless you understand why people keep going back to the original, right? Which is a challenge for the energy industry.

Exactly. My watch uses a different battery than my computer, for example. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for our energy infrastructure either. That’s what is so exciting about marine energy. There are many ways to use it. For ocean observation, researchers are developing new materials that can capture energy from small temperature differences between the surface of the ocean and the air above. And small businesses are developing turbines that can be used in tidal currents or rivers to generate electricity for communities.

So, what led you to shift into more policy work and marine energy?

Jake Herb picking carrots on a farm/

"I could develop a new technology that does something cool, which is fantastic! But is that aligned with broader goals of our society?" Herb said. That question brought him to WPTO, where he worked directly with communities and researchers to ensure technologies are built with a home in mind.

Photo courtesy of Jake Herb

I spent graduate school working on one very narrow problem: How do I design a molecule that can be used as an electrolyte for a battery?

Later, as a principal scientist at a technology development company, I worked with customers on specific problems. For instance, how can we make a battery that can survive at extreme temperatures, on the moon, or in the ocean?

I also started to learn more about the challenges of powering devices in the ocean and wondered if it was possible to generate energy from the ocean itself. While I loved the problems that I got to work on, I realized I had moved away from my original goal, which was to positively affect change on a broader scale. I could develop a new technology that does something cool, which is fantastic! But is that aligned with broader goals of our society?

That was one reason you decided to work at WPTO, right?

WPTO places a strong emphasis on finding and working with specific end-user partners—whether those are tribes in rural Alaska or rural and remote communities throughout the United States. They’re basically trying to answer the question: Who can benefit most from this technology? To enact true change on a large scale, we need concrete examples to show how these technologies have benefited such communities, like how much diesel fuel usage has been offset when a community deploys a marine energy device, for instance.

Are there any specific projects you worked on that fit within this aim?

I comanaged a few research projects at the national labs that focus on integrating marine energy devices with microgrids in rural and remote communities. This work is a part of the Resilient Coastal Communities program, and these communities can benefit the most from these technologies, especially in the near term.

The team at WPTO is phenomenal. They fund researchers to bring their technological ideas to fruition and help small communities enact their energy transitions. I was fortunate to work on multiple impactful projects, which can be overwhelming (but in a good way)!

So, in an ideal world, what would you hope to accomplish? What would that world look like?

Jake Herb standing on a beach in front of a river.

At WPTO (and beyond), Herb wants to help build the bridge to a carbon-free future. And he sees the up-and-coming marine energy industry as a valuable stone in that bridge.

Photo courtesy of Jake Herb

I would want to figure out how our society can meet the important goals we are setting for ourselves. What does carbon-free power generation by 2035 actually look like? Charting a path for marine energy devices to generate a substantial amount of electricity for the grid will require more foundational research, strategic planning, and engagement with end-user communities. In whatever way possible, I want to be part of building the bridge that takes us to that other side.

A friend of mine once said, “So, Jake, your goal is to stop climate change? You’re setting yourself up to be stressed out for the rest of your life!” Ever since, I’ve recognized it is actually the small contributions that are important for building that bridge, brick by brick.

Then, do you think you'll continue down this more policy-focused or governmental path?

Working in government, I get to see the entire landscape of many different technology areas, work with academics on specific technical problems, and learn how they interface with broader industry questions. Then I get to be a part of determining how we can affect change in the future. That bigger scale is super exciting. It’s a great place to be!

What would you tell someone considering a Science and Technology Policy fellowship with AAAS?

Stay curious. I focused so heavily on chemistry throughout college and graduate school. It’s nice to be a technology expert, but there’s a lot to be said for keeping a broad view. You don’t know where your skill set is going to line up somewhere else down the road. I am grateful that I took opportunities to learn about technology commercialization and business development at the end of grad school since it helped reframe how I think about scientific problems. So, stay in touch with that curious part of yourself; it can get lost if you’re really focused.

Final question: Why is marine energy an interesting field to work in?

The cool thing is that, as of yet, there’s no right answer. That’s frustrating if you’re a perfectionist but great if you’re a person who likes ideation. The idea space is so wide and vast, touching oceanography, marine engineering, social science, and biology. And who knows? Maybe there’s going to be a scientist in a totally different research area who figures out a new way to make energy in the ocean. Why not? We have to try.

 

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