I set out looking for an internship for the 2014 summer in pursuit of something close to my home in Pittsburgh; maybe I’d join the exodus of M&T’s bound for New York. When I received the offer to be an engineering intern at LP Amina in Beijing helping to reduce pollution, I knew I had to leave home behind; the opportunity was too tantalizing to pass by. Having never left the United States before, spending ten weeks working in Beijing seemed daunting at first. For one thing, I didn’t know a single word of Mandarin. I learned nihao, hello, on the plane ride to Beijing. I was thrilled to have the chance to gain experience in the energy industry on a global scale all while learning a new language through the free Mandarin lessons my company offered.
LP Amina is a multinational environmental engineering firm that researches NOx reduction solutions and retrofits Chinese coal-fired power plants. For those not familiar, NOx, the general term for various nitric oxides, is one of the main chemical compounds that contributes to smog. The smog in Beijing is so bad that it has been traced to increased lung cancer rates. There are many companies that offer NOx reduction solutions in China, thus to remain competitive a business must have a differentiated solution and guanxi, connections. LP Amina’s selling point is that they provide all three retrofit solutions for power plants, which I had the pleasure of learning about at weekly technical trainings that alternated between being taught in English and Mandarin. LP Amina is a small hundred person company with a culture that shouts change and innovation. This made for the perfect milieu to learn about clean and sustainable energy while making meaningful contributions in the pollution reduction efforts in my position as an engineering intern.
Although I am majoring in mechanical engineering at Penn, LP Amina placed me as a structural engineering intern. This proved to be a challenge as there are a surprising number of differences between the two disciplines. While I did have the opportunity to design the mechanics behind nozzles and burners, the majority of my time was spent designing the structure to support the ducts drafted by the mechanical engineers. My main project at LP Amina was designing a Secondary Overfire Air (SOFA) duct for the Linyi power plant in the Shandong District. My company flew me out to visit the site. There I received a full technical tour of the power plant, collected old blueprints, and climbed two of the boilers to take measurements and determine the best location for the SOFA ducts. While a power plant retrofit project in the US traditionally takes two years, a similar project in fast-paced China only takes two months. This enabled me to play an active role on all structural engineering aspects of the project, from creating an AutoCAD version of the old blueprints to checking the structural integrity of my and other engineers’ designs to support the SOFA ducts.
What I least expected to encounter at a US-based company was the language barrier at work; I was the only native English speaker in the entire engineering department. The language barrier made it difficult for me to understand my assignments at times. As I learned more Chinese, communication became easier and I began to have a jovial relationship with my coworkers. I attended a company-wide vacation to Inner Mongolia where I bonded with my peers over Chinese games and horseback riding. By the end of the summer, I felt like my colleagues were family.
During my time in Beijing, I was most struck by the ambition of the Chinese. Everything is a business opportunity. From factories that satisfy our gluttonous need for brand name products by making exact replicas of Louis Vuitton purses to shirtless technicians who fix your cracked phone screen for less than three bucks. Price discrimination is a lifestyle, and if you’re American, you’re going to pay double no matter how hard you bargain. Women snatch half-finished Bei Bing Yang bottles from your hand to later redeem for one Yuan. Who needs Uber when you can wave over a black cab, an unregistered taxi, in seconds? When I climbed the remote mountain Taishan, there were vendors at the peak who sold water bottles and watermelon at marked-up prices that anybody would pay after the tiring climb. Who knew that China was the true land of opportunity?
At Penn we fall into the routine that has been set by generations before us. Work hard, get good grades, OCR (on campus recruiting), repeat. What I love about M&T is that it gives us the opportunity to choose our own path; my time in China has reminded me of that. There is no problem with taking a semester off to work on your startup. This year I return to Penn with a renewed passion for the energy industry and a reignited entrepreneurial spirit. Living in Beijing, I experienced the ramifications of pollution firsthand. It is terrifying running to catch the bus only to find yourself wheezing from the slightest physical exertion. I now see both the business opportunity and environmental need for energy reform in the US, China, and the rest of the world. I look forward to using what I learn as an M&T to make sustainable energy a profitable reality.
Guthrie, originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is a member of the M&T Class of 2016. He studies Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics within Penn Engineering and has yet to declare his concentration in the Wharton School.