From university to heavy industry: A slow transition
It is nearly winter holiday, and us first year trainees have already reached halfway through our first trainee period in Elkem. My first placement has been at Elkem Technology in Kristiansand where I have had the privilege of being welcomed by many engaging colleagues, and working with a few remarkably interesting projects with plenty of guidance from enthusiastic co-workers, and a lot to learn. Along with that, the past four months have offered an abundance of excitement through many courses, traveling, social gatherings, and even a trip to Venice.
Having the job description of an Elkem trainee gives a great opportunity for gaining valuable knowledge and skills. Being fresh to working life, and Elkem, much of the time at the beginning of a new placement is spent getting up to date about the project and acquiring the relevant background. As each rotation lasts for only eight months, we get a unique chance to spend two years learning a great deal from people at various sites and divisions in Elkem, with each period offering a new set of challenges and experience.
My first period has been at Elkem Technology which is Elkem’s department dedicated for research and development. The R&D center in Kristiansand consists of about one hundred employees and facilities including labs, offices, and a pilot plant station. Many of the projects are focused on improving Elkem’s existing production processes with respect to efficiency and product quality. Most projects I have been involved with have nevertheless focused on the development of new products within several emerging fields of technology such as thermoelectric generation, additive manufacturing and battery anode technology.
Thermoelectric generators are solid state devices which generate an electrical potential from a flux of heat through them. They have the enormous advantage compared to conventional heat engines that they are compact, require no moving parts and can easily be utilized on a small scale. As all heat engines, their efficiency is ultimately limited by the Carnot-efficiency – however, in addition many material characteristics such as the thermal and electrical conductivity of the thermoelectric material, limit the overall efficiency of the device. Today the main constraint of thermoelectric generators is their low efficiency, where only 5-8% for the thermal energy is converted to useful power in the best thermoelectric materials at optimum operating conditions.
Thermoelectric generation is an interesting topic both as silicon and its alloys are promising thermoelectric materials, and because thermoelectric generators provide means to potentially recover some of the energy lost in Elkem’s production processes. During my stay in Kristiansand I have been working with the synthesis of new thermoelectric materials, and the characterization of their structural and electrical properties. With the support of skilled lab staff and motivated project managers I have gained a lot of experience as a user of many techniques which I had previously only read about in textbooks, and to apply those skills to contribute to various research projects that Elkem is involved in.
In addition to work in Kristiansand I have also been lucky enough to be involved in numerous project meetings at collaborating universities and institutions, including lab visits and workshops too. After only one month at Elkem I was taken for a three days trip to Padova, near Venice in Italy, for the 15th European Conference on Thermoelectrics to learn and gain inspiration about the topic. So far it has been a very exciting and valuable experience working at Elkem, and I am looking forward to the challenges that my remaining time as a trainee, and working more hands-on at a production site, will bring.