In the fall, Kirk Smith will begin working on his doctoral degree in engineering science at the University of Oxford, in England, courtesy the Rhodes Scholarship. This internationally competitive scholarship, awarded to only 32 students annually from the United States, funds the students for two years as they obtain their degrees from the University of Oxford. He’s TU’s first Rhodes Scholar since 1988.
Smith credits Nona Charleston, director of nationally competitive scholarships at TU, with his initial interest in applying for the scholarship. While working with her spring of last year on other scholarships, like the Goldwater, she told him the Rhodes Scholarship “helped you frame your graduate school applications…there’s so many qualified people who don’t win every year, but it helps you get your direction before you start graduate school.”
Of course, Smith didn’t have to apply for graduate school, as he was awarded the scholarship before he’d even decided which schools he was interested in. “I wanted to go West, either Colorado or California, or just the Rockies,” he said.
At Oxford, Smith plans to study storage of renewable energy. “One of the problems facing all renewable energy, but mainly solar and wind, is that it’s intermittent,” Smith explained. “The sun goes down, there’s clouds, and the wind isn’t constant all the time. So the resource is less valuable as a result, because when you need it, you might not have it.” As of now, there’s not a cheap way to store this energy, other than hydropower, which is “pretty much used up and location dependent.”
To date, solving this problem involves either building more or building better transmission lines and getting the energy from some other place. Smith hopes to take promising storage technology from the lab scale and scale it up. Although he’s focused on solar energy during his research at TU, Oxford doesn’t have as much dedicated to that field, for weather reasons. They do, however, have a big focus on energy storage, as electricity is more expensive there, and, as a result, renewables are more prevalent than in the US.
For his previous research experience, Smith went to Europe, although he’s never visited England. Last summer, he participated in Research Internships in Science and Engineering (RISE Germany). There, he worked on solar thermal power, which is used to pre-heat water for domestic purposes.
Smith’s interest in renewable energy grew as a child. “As a kid I got really upset about climate change and the implications of that because I was very outdoorsy and environmentally minded,” he said. “Obviously one of the natural solutions of that is reducing the consumption of fossil fuels.” During his freshman year at TU, Professor Todd Otanica came to talk to his introduction to mechanical engineering class about his work with solar energy. Smith took the opportunity to begin working in his lab.
Although the cross country and track and field teams were a “major pull” for Smith to come to TU, the variety of opportunities he was able to take advantage of while studying here — such as global scholars, undergraduate research and the low student-faculty ratio — contributed to his studies.
Smith hadn’t decided, at the time of this interview, which professor he would work under while at Oxford.