Meet Sebastiano Giardinella, a project engineer with the Illinois Sustainable Technology Survey (ISTC). Sebastiano joined ISTC in 2021 and is responsible for coordinating and assisting researchers with ongoing projects and proposals, primarily related to Department of Energy (DOE)-funded research.
He recently answered some questions about his career, commonly-held misconceptions about chemical engineering, and his advice for those just starting out in the field.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your role at ISTC?
My name is Sebastiano Giardinella. I am a chemical engineer with a MSc. In Renewable Energy Development and Project Management Professional (PMP) certification. I was born and raised in Venezuela and later spent most of my professional life in the Republic of Panama, performing engineering and project management work mostly for power generation and natural gas industries across the Americas, through a company I co-founded with partners in the engineering, procurement, and construction sector called Ecotek, with whom I developed a new technology for compressed gas energy storage. At ISTC, I am responsible for coordinating and assisting researchers with ongoing projects and proposals, primarily related to DOE-funded large-scale research in energy storage and carbon capture, utilization, and storage. My first project here was a conceptual study to evaluate the potential of integrating the compressed gas energy storage I developed with Abbott Power Plant and the natural gas pipeline owned and operated by the UIUC. The results of said project have shown great potential for implementation, and I am now eager to continue to see its materialization.
What drew you to your particular area of study?
I was drawn to chemical engineering because it encompasses much of what makes modern life possible: the products we use in our daily lives, the water we drink, the food we eat, and the energy we use. I began working in petroleum production and refining, given its importance as an industry in my home country. I progressively moved on to natural gas and thermal power generation, which occupy important parts of our energy system. Later, I decided to proceed with renewable energy as I found it essential to reduce the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Through the skills I've acquired in these industries, I would say that my current area of study is better defined as energy and its interaction with production processes.
What tools are indispensable to your fieldwork?
Most of my work is computer-based. In engineering design and project management, I find it indispensable to have a fast computer with internet access, CAD software, process simulators, and project planning software.
What question do you get asked most frequently about your career?
I frequently get asked whether I am on the side of hydrocarbons or on the side of renewables. My answer is typically complex, given that I believe that each has its place in the current energy system and different strategies should be pursued to support a sustainable economy and further decarbonization.
What do you wish more people understood about your work?
I wish there was a wider understanding that climate change is a complex issue and there is no single solution. Having worked in different sectors, I have come to believe in a holistic approach towards climate change, given that each potential solution has its pros and cons. For example, intermittent renewables are subject to weather conditions, require large areas, and need another form of backup power to give reliability to the grid; batteries have lower energy densities than fuels and are subject to critical materials constraints; hydrocarbons are cheap, abundant, and energy-dense, but generate emissions and are subject to price cycles. I feel that a reliable, decarbonized global energy system will need to combine wider electrification, renewable energy, thermal power generation with carbon capture, nuclear, different forms of energy storage suitable for different uses, a mix of blue and green fuels, and considerable improvements in energy efficiency.
What advice would you give to those just starting out in your field?
Chemical engineering is very wide. I recommend to chemical engineers starting their career to look at different industries and types of roles, to get a sense of the kind of work that best fits with their goals and aspirations. Also, if they are seeking change, I would recommend trying different industries where the built-up skills can be leveraged in a different environment. Another piece of advice is to strengthen one's skills in project management, given that almost any job will require working with teams, planning, budgeting, and controlling execution.