Sion is a homey town where bus drivers greet pedestrians on the streets, the capital of Canton Valais Wallis, and the site of the EPFL Energypolis campus where I had worked for the past summer. Energypolis consists of seven research laboratories that focus on renewable energy, health and environmental sustainability, lead by professors affiliated with the Institute of Chemical Sciences and Engineering (ISIC) from the main EPFL campus. The various exciting projects include gas separation, hydrogen storage, solar-to-fuel conversion, carbon dioxide capture and storage, and what I worked on: vanadium redox flow batteries (VRBs).
Redox flow batteries is an interesting field of research as it provides a rechargeable electrochemical energy storage system that may be useful in large-scale utility applications, to compensate for the instability of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. I was very fortunate to be a part of this project in the Laboratory of Physical and Analytical Electrochemistry (LEPA) where I learned a lot about flow batteries in practice: the concept, assembly, and of course the intricacies to improve its efficiency. My task was to test how different membranes and temperatures affected the batteries, but it was much more work than it sounds: setting the correct voltage limits to avoid anodizing the electrode, determining the optimal amount of electrolyte for each set of tests, finding novel ways to keep a constant temperature for the entire apparatus… But these troubleshooting experiences gave me great insights to what a PhD experience would be like. Overall, it was a very fruitful experience!
And of course, traveling! Switzerland is one of the most beautiful countries in the world and it’s also in the center of Europe, which makes traveling very convenient: it takes less than 4 hours to go to Paris and Milan by train, less than 2 hours to fly from Geneva to Barcelona, Munich, Prague, etc., and of course Switzerland itself is simply breathtaking! As many posts have mentioned, Half-fare cards, Track 7, and your fellow wonderful interns will make your trips even more fantastic! Also, many attractions offer significant discounts if you are with a group of 10 or more.
Every weekend was a different adventure. Even though I had to occasionally get up as early as 4 am to catch the train, very frequently run after all forms of transportation, and my leg muscles sure became much stronger after walking an average of 20 miles every weekend, it was worth every moment. Whether it was hiking by the Matterhorn, taking the world’s steepest cogwheel railway up to Mt. Pilatus, or simply strolling by Lake Geneva in Montreux, words cannot express how breathtaking the scenery was:
After I came back to the U.S., a friend asked which city was my favorite during my three months of interning/traveling in Europe. I could not give a clear answer to this question, but Switzerland was most definitely my favorite country.
Carrol (Qiwen) Xia, University of California, Berkeley.
Laboratory of Physical and Analytical Electrochemistry (LEPA), EPFL