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Robotics and automation engineer follows career path back to Oak Ridge: Peter Wang

Peter Wang is focused on robotics and automation at the Department of Energy’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility at ORNL, working on high-profile projects such as the MedUSA, a large-scale hybrid additive manufacturing machine.

Peter Wang is proof you can go home again. As a second-generation Oak Ridge National Laboratory scientist working in the Manufacturing Systems Research Group, Wang’s professional journey has come full circle, leading him to where he started more than a decade ago.

“I began at ORNL as a student researcher in materials, working with thin films using liquid chemical synthesis and moved on to do additional research in particle physics,” he said. “The lab gave me the foundation I needed to work in industry.”

Wang turned his understanding of material properties into a career in design engineering and robotics, working for companies throughout the Pacific Northwest and California, including as a mechanical engineer at Elon Musk’s The Boring Company.

“I always felt that one day I’d return here, to continue doing fundamental research with a national lab,” he said.

That day came in mid-2019 when Wang joined the Department of Energy’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility (MDF) at ORNL as a researcher in robotics and automation, collaborating on several high-profile projects including the Transformational Challenge Reactor, the first additively manufactured nuclear reactor, and MedUSA, a next-generation large-scale hybrid additive manufacturing platform.

“At the MDF, I’m working on multi-materials for 3D printing, for example printing different-sized human mannequins that can be used as crash test dummies and integrating sensors into the dummies so we can precisely show how accidents in different types of vehicles impact the body,” he said. “We’re also 3D printing fish with sensors that behave just like regular fish to be used in experiments.

I’m here at the right time, when so many new and innovative projects are taking shape,” he added. “Where else can you be on the design team to 3D print a nuclear reactor? Nowhere else but Oak Ridge.

- Peter Wang

From tunnels to towers

The son of an ORNL materials scientist, Wang grew up in East Tennessee. His father moved the family from Northern California to work at the lab when he was three years old.

“I was the typical researcher’s kid who loved math and science,” he said. “One of my favorite places to go growing up was the American Museum of Science and Energy. I imagined what it would be like to invent something that would one day be displayed in that museum.”

Fascinated by all things mechanical and the art of invention, Wang’s academic achievements paved the way for his entrance into Harvey Mudd College, followed by post-graduate studies at Stanford University and completing his PhD in mechanical engineering at the University of California, Irvine.

“When I graduated in 2008, I had five standing job offers, and I thought, great, I can go anywhere, but then the stock market crashed and all those offers were rescinded, so I found myself scrambling and looking for a job,” he said.

Despite lean times in the market, Wang said he was fortunate that with his skill set, he still could pick and choose among options.

“I was working on the structural design side of things, heavy civil construction, specifically bridges, power plants and tunnels,” he said. “I was designing custom machinery, new processes and how to implement them.”

Wang wanted to spend some time living in Seattle and that led him to a head engineer position for the Brightwater treatment system, designed to treat an average of 36 million gallons of wastewater in the Pacific Northwest.

“Water from the treatment plant had to flow through a 13-mile tunnel into the Puget Sound and my job was to figure out how to dig the tunnel,” he said.

Wang spent several years working directly in the tunnel, running the machines, troubleshooting problems, adjusting dig parameters, analyzing soil and knowing that one missed calculation could lead to potential tunnel collapse and loss of life.

“It was like being in a coal mine, no sunlight, it’s damp and noisy all the time and the working quarters were very small with a walkway of no more than 18 inches. I had to be resolute in my science because my decisions could make the tunnel flood or collapse and subject the company to millions of dollars in losses,” he said. “But I knew if I could handle this type of work atmosphere, I could handle almost anything.”

That experience led Wang a few years later to Musk’s The Boring Company, an infrastructure and tunnel construction start-up. Wang was the lead design engineer for next-generation tunnel boring machines.

“The fact that I was doing complex mechanical design work made Boring interested in me,” he said. “I also had friends at the time who worked for Musk’s SpaceX, the aerospace company, and they encouraged me to apply.”

Wang spent two years retrofitting and upgrading existing machinery and incorporating new technology into Musk’s advanced machines used to dig structures like the Test Tunnel in Hawthorne, California, for researching and developing public transportation systems. He was also instrumental in construction of the Watchtower, a 50-foot tower across from SpaceX headquarters in Los Angeles made of bricks formed from recovered tunneling.

“Musk wanted to demonstrate that if you added a little bit of cement to the discarded tunnel dirt then compress it, you can make bricks and put them to use in real construction applications, while simultaneously reducing waste and offsetting tunneling costs through selling the bricks,” Wang explained.

Building a watchtower is by far not the pinnacle of Wang’s career – he has years to go and is already off to an enthusiastic start at ORNL.

I’ve been approached to help lead the systems design for a large-scale multi-laser powder bed system that will create novel electrical steels. These are exciting times.

- Peter Wang

ORNL is managed by UT-Battelle for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit https://energy.gov/science.