Rock Climbing and Chemical Engineering: They have more in common than you think

Rock Climbing and Chemical Engineering:
They have more in common than you think

By Dr. Grace Chen
Savannah River Remediation Senior Engineer

I love solving problems. I have since I was a kid.

Dr. Grace Chen Savannah River Remediation Senior EngineerI work for Amentum-led Savannah River Remediation (SRR), the liquid waste contractor for the U.S Department of Energy (DOE) at the Savannah River Site (SRS), located near Aiken, S.C. As you can imagine, when you work in the DOE Complex there are plenty of opportunities to problem-solve. At SRS, we are celebrating our 70th Anniversary as a Site this year. So, our history goes back a long way.

When I’m not at work, I’m likely solving problems of a different kind. My main hobby is rock climbing. Did you know that climbing routes are actually called problems? You won’t be surprised to learn that rock climbing is both physically and mentally challenging. But this activity helps me with my overall approach to solving problems at work and in life.

The name Wolfgang Gullich isn’t a household name, but he was a German rock climber from the 1970s to the 1990s who is known as one of the greatest sport climbers of his generation. He said: “In climbing you are always faced with new problems in which you must perform using intuitive movements, and then later analyze them to figure out why they work, and then learn from them.”

That sounds like what I do for a living, too.

A big part of my work is ensuring we can better integrate one of the SRS liquid waste facilities with the Salt Waste Processing Facility (SWPF).

SWPF’s mission is to process radioactive salt waste, which comprises about 90 percent of the waste volume contained in 35 million gallons of waste stored in 43 underground waste tanks at SRS. SWPF will begin hot commissioning in 2020 and will process up to 9 million gallons of waste per year. To get ready for the millions of gallons of additional waste that will be processed through SWPF, we have to prepare the Site’s liquid waste facilities to handle the greater waste volume.

As part of this preparation, I have been the lead in taking a significant R&D project from idea to reality. The project is to replace formic acid with glycolic acid used at the Site’s high-level waste vitrification plant, the Defense Waste Processing Facility (DWPF). There are many technical reasons to make this switch, which I discussed in a paper and presentation as part of Waste Management Symposia 2020 in March. But the bottom line is that it makes the facility safer and better prepared to treat waste at the higher SWPF production rates. We are now working to get our facility equipment ready for this change to glycolic acid.

As a 2017 graduate of Georgia Institute of Technology with a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering, these are the kinds of problems I want to solve. But my inspiration runs deeper.

Like many of you, my parents inspired me to work hard, think critically, and be appreciative of my opportunities. They both came to America from Taiwan in their late 20s with very little money and speaking barely any English. But through their hard work, perseverance, and strong belief in the value of education, they were both able to obtain master’s degrees and jobs in software engineering.

It is from them that I developed an interest in math, science, and engineering. From their encouragement and support, I have landed in a fantastic place with Amentum and SRR. I have some great opportunities to solve problems.

It’s what I do.