At last to the Atacama desert – meet researcher Isabelle Viole! 

She designs and simulates a hybrid energy storage system to power a telescope throughout the night in the Atacama Desert, at 5100 meter elevation and at one of the driest place on earth.

profile photo of isabbe viole

-When visiting the potential AtLAST site I become even more positive towards our goal to design a viable system that can power this gigantic single-dish telescope. The solar irradiation in the Atacama desert is phenomenal, says Isabelle Viole. Photo credit:UiO

Name: Isabelle Viole 
Born: In Germany, lives in Oslo  
Background: Viole is a mechanical engineer for renewable energies. She is interested in creating a more sustainable world. Viole has finished her master thesis on Energy System Modeling with the German Aerospace Center (DLR). Currently she is holding a position as a PhD research fellow at the Department of Technology Systems (UiO) at Kjeller. She is working at the Atacama Large Aperture Submillimeter Telescope project. AtLAST is a concept for a next generation 50-meter class single-dish astronomical observatory operating at sub-millimeter and millimeter wavelengths, run as a facility telescope by an international partnership and powered by renewable energy.  

What are your work tasks, Isabelle?  
-I model energy storage systems based on hydrogen technology and batteries. In the AtLAST design study, I work on a novel hybrid energy storage system for the planned Atacama Large Aperture Submillimeter Telescope. The goal is to power this telescope in Chile with renewable electricity, using solar energy and a hybrid energy storage. 
Viole recently made a field trip to the Atacama desert in Chile with collegues  from the Department of Technology Systems, University of Oslo. 


The Atacama Pathfinder Experiment telescope (APEX) at 5064 meters above sea level. AtLAST and APEX are collaborating scientifically and technically, for example when it comes to discussing renewable energy options.Photo credit:UiO

Tell me a little bit about your work and experiences on this trip? 
-My main goal for this trip was to gain a deeper understanding of what works at the altitudes we are looking at for the new telescope, and what does not. At 5000meters above sea level, things are so different than close to sea level. For example, snow does not fall down, but it rather goes horizontal, which has it clog up behind any obstacle. We will need to keep that in mind for building photovoltaic arrays up there. 

-It was very important for me to discuss ideas for power systems with engineers from some of the telescopes that are already up on Cerro Chajnator, our dedicated telescope location. I stayed with the nice people from APEX at their base camp, at 2500meters above sea level, and really got to see what life and work in such a remote and extreme location is like. 

Your research in the AtLAST project?
-I am a PhD researcher within the AtLAST project. My main task is to design and simulate the hybrid energy storage system, which we will need to power the new telescope throughout the night. Some telescopes like La Silla have already added some solar power to their system, which helps them during daylight hours, but then use fossil fuel generators during the night. We however plan to have next to no direct carbon emissions, which is why I am looking into coupling different storage options like super capacitors, batteries and/or hydrogen. The remote and harsh location makes this project really interesting and different from anything I have worked on prior. 

Atacama desert
Isabelle Viole visited the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment telescope (APEX) and its power generation units while in the Atacama desert this summer.The soil close to the site is rich in metals such as lithium and sulphur. This forms a challenging environment for electronics.Photo credit:APEX

What are your experiences regarding the benefits and challenges of operating a sub-millimeter telescope at approximately 5100 meter elevation and from one of the driest places on earth?
-For observing space, humidity in the air is a key factor. The lower the humidity, the better one can observe. That is why astronomers love to build their telescopes in the Atacama desert, it’s the second best place on our planet for that. Only Antarctica offers even lower humidity, but also comes with an even harsher environment and more logistical difficulties. Height is the other relevant parameter. The higher we are, the less atmosphere is above us to add errors to measurements. So working at this height in a hyperarid desert is really the dream for astronomers. What I personally experienced while being on site is that working at 5000meter is no joke. The first time I went up to visit the APEX telescope, my oxygen levels sank below 80%, so they hooked me up to an oxygen tank. One really needs to look out for the colleagues and make sure that everyone gets down from the mountain safe again. 

What did you learn from this trip in relation to the goal of power the telescope with renewable electricity using solar energy and a hybrid energy storage? 
-I got to talk to different telescope operators who are located here at Cerro Chajnator, and all of them were open to renewable energies. You see, astronomers really care about earth and climate change, I think because they look into space so much. But when discussing costs, the reality of adding a photovoltaic system for many just seems out of reach, as they don’t have the funding for that. We need to have more political pressure on the astronomical agencies so that this gets higher on their agenda. 

-When looking at AtLAST, I became even more positive towards our goal to design a viable system that can power this gigantic single-dish telescope. The solar irradiation in the Atacama desert is phenomenal. Things we need to consider obviously are how far or close to AtLAST we want to build the system. For one we have harsher conditions and more snowfall at 5000 meters of altitude. But for another, the farther away we build our energy system, the more trenches for power cables we have to dig into the metal-rich soil here, which is more difficult than I expected initially. 


Bildet kan inneholde: sky, himmel, solenergi, solar parabol, solcellepanel.
Guillermo Valenzuela, Isabelle Viole and Marianne Zeyringer (left to right) from the AtLAST team visiting a bifacial photovoltaic plant located 40 km away from the potential AtLAST site, at 2500 meters above sea level. Photo credit:UiO

Why is it important to fulfill this goal?  
-Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energies is one of the key things we need to do to mitigate climate change. Ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy is one of the sustainable development goals. I think it is especially important for research institutions to look at our carbon footprints and take the necessary steps to reduce this footprint as fast and as far as possible. 

I know that you are deeply engaged in the human factor throughout your research work and field trips abroad. What have you learned about the local community in the San Pedro de Atacama area during your stay? And what kind of attitude do they have to your research work?
-The people from San Pedro de Atacama I talked to are very positive and proud of the telescopes in their neighborhood. It is very remote here, 100 km from the next bigger city without much around, but nonetheless all these researchers from all over the world come to this place to stare at the stars and gas clouds. During our visit to the city, we held a workshop with the local community, the energy utility as well as telescope operators, where we discussed the needs and wants of different stakeholders regarding the energy system of the future. There is a big interest for the energy provider in the area to become 100% renewable, which was great to hear.  In addition to this, the local media highlighted the researchers work in positive terms. 

How do you find doing research in this kind of environment, so unlike everything else? 
-It is a great opportunity to take one’s research out of the known place, and have a look how it can be implemented elsewhere. Whenever I go abroad, I find it very important and humbling to acknowledge that not all ideas which we from Northern Europe have can just easily be applied in different places of the planet. The political ways in rural Chile, the needs and wants of the community, as well as the astronomers need to be included in our research ideas of which kind of energy systems can be set up for AtLAST. This is a challenge and a great opportunity to think outside the box. 

Statistically there are more men than women with your background and research field. In your opinion, why is it so, and what could possibly be done to change this? 
-That is a big question and a big challenge. For myself, it is always important to work in inclusive environments, where I am taken seriously. Some work places in science, technology, engineering and mathematics have a very male-dominated culture, which makes it uncomfortable to work there, leading to a higher turnover of female employees. Additionally, gender stereotypes are dominant in society, be it conscious or unconscious bias. To work against this, it is important to have strong role models and encourage girls and women who are good in math and sciences to continue on with these subjects. Diversity in the workplace is important for different aspects. Many work better in diverse work environments. Especially in the technological field, it is important to have a gender balance, so that we find solutions that are good and applicable for both men and women, for example to combat climate change. 

-Engineering is absolutely for everyone. I would love it if I could inspire some other women to take on this career path! 

Thank you for your time, Isabelle. You are certainly an excellent role model for future academics! By the way, did I mention that she received the prize “Positivity in Research” at the conference Hydrides as Energy Materials 2022? 



Av Mette Johnsrud
Publisert 30. aug. 2022 11:08 - Sist endret 30. aug. 2022 17:35