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On December 8, 2014, Ellen Williams was confirmed as the director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (ARPA-E). A chemist by education, with a Ph.D. in the subject from Caltech, she previously served as the senior advisor to the Secretary of Energy and as the chief scientist for BP. She is currently on a leave of absence from the University of Maryland, where she is a distinguished university professor in the Department of Physics and the Institute for Physical Science and Technology. Williams founded the University of Maryland Materials Research Science and Engineering Center and served as its director from 1996 through 2009.
As the director of ARPA-E, she will “oversee a novel program that funds high-potential, high-impact energy technologies that are too early for private-sector investment. She will ensure that the technologies assisted through ARPA-E will help change the energy landscape and better meet our nations’ changing energy needs,” according to a press release. Alaina G. Levine interviewed Ellen Williams for APS News to discuss goals for her new job and what lies ahead.
AGL: I'd like to ask you about your physics background and why you chose physics in the first place. How has physics helped you in your career?
EW: To a certain extent, I would say that I didn't actually choose physics, I think physics chose me. I don't have a degree in physics. My undergraduate and graduate degrees are in chemistry. I was a little naive as a young person. I didn't really realize where I was going, but I understood what looked really fun and interesting to do, so I constantly moved forward in my choices, picking the most interesting thing I could find to do. When I was in graduate school, I was very interested in some problems in physics, so when I graduated, I took a position in a physics department. The physical chemistry discipline and the physics discipline aren't so different that that's impossible to do, but it's not that easy either. But physics is a great background. The rigor and the discipline of physics and the skepticism that you have to bring to your discipline have been incredibly important to me all throughout my career. So when I talk to young people and they ask me "What should I do to be successful? … And in the future should I do this or do that?", my one answer always is: Be really good at the thing you're doing now. Learn your technical discipline so you will become the world’s expert and you're completely on top of it and that rigor and that discipline is going to serve you for the rest of your life.
AGL: It's interesting that your background is chemistry but you identify yourself as a physicist. So far in your career, what have been your proudest accomplishments, those that you're most excited about?
EW: I will give you three, because they represent different stages of my life. A big accomplishment for me was pulling together an interdisciplinary team to form the Materials Research Center at the University of Maryland. That was both an accomplishment, and very much represents a way of doing science and a way of thinking about research that I think is crucial for the future. It's very representative of what we see in our successful ARPA-E projects. Another [accomplishment] is that throughout my life, I've been also engaged in consulting activities for the Department of Defense and very active in nuclear security. A few years ago, I ran a National Academies study on technical issues for the conventional test ban treaty. I'm really proud of that report because we did a very serious technical review of those issues and really put a baseline in place for decision makers to understand what was out there in terms of ability to monitor and assess in the test ban treaty.
AGL: What were the results?
EW: The results were that when you’re [trying to sense] if someone’s … [set] off a nuclear [explosion], you can detect tests at different levels with different levels of confidence. So if someone is doing a test at the large scale, which would be necessary to create a highly-advanced type of nuclear weapon, we believe that would be detectable. If someone was doing very crude development, a very simple nuclear weapon, that might not be detectable. So you’d really have to be balanced in your issues of understanding what it is you’re looking for and what the risks are in assessing what the meaning of detection was.
AGL: So was it a definition of detection, and also when you do detect something, whether it necessarily means the existence of a nuclear weapon?
EW: That's right. And the scale of sophistication of the weapon. The weapon that was used in Hiroshima is very different from modern weapons.
AGL: But I can imagine there are certain weapons that are being developed at a very low radiation level, but yet it could be very explosive and very dangerous. Does your work help to understand that?
EW: Understand it and monitor it. So I was very pleased with that report and very proud of it. And the third thing that was really important to me was activity I did at BP, where I was asked to run an energy sustainability study. We worked extensively with about 13 different universities to really do a deep assessment of how energy relates to water use, how it relates to minerals, or the availability of minerals to create energy, the relationship between energy and land use, and the relationship between energy and climate. And in that we were able to assess where there were options to deal with problems, how much those might cost, where it would be easy to deal with problems, and where it would be hard to deal with problems. We published three handbooks that provide people who need to understand these issues and make decisions with the kind of underpinning technical information that [they] need to think clearly.
AGL: So now here you are at ARPA-E, and honestly you could have gone anywhere and done anything with your background and experience. What are you excited about at ARPA-E, and what are the important projects that you and your team are working on?
EW: I'm excited about ARPA-E because of the technical innovation, and the challenge of the problems we’re trying to solve. The whole energy challenge is so important to society. And I'm excited about ARPA-E because of the real potential for impact. The unique thing about ARPA-E’s model is that we combine technical innovation with really a cold eye, razor sharp focus on making sure that the technologies we develop are actually on a pathway to being competitive in the marketplace. And that's what makes ARPA-E different and it's going to allow us to have a continuously expanding impact.
AGL: Can you talk about those technologies? And in your opinion, what are the transformative technologies that are in energy research at the moment that will have or could have the biggest impact, and how is ARPA-E playing a role with that?
EW: There's so many (laughs), so I'm just going to list a couple and please don't take these as exclusive, because we don't have enough time for me to cover everything. I think heat capture is huge. We waste so much of our energy having it go off as heat. So heat capture is a huge technical challenge and ARPA-E has many different programs where we are identifying key choke points or roadblock to improving our ability to exploit heat and looking at and developing options in that area. Energy storage — that one is, again, a huge issue for stabilizing the grid, allowing distributive generation, allowing more integration of renewable energy resources. It's interesting that when people tend to think of energy storage, they think batteries, and we've invested a lot in batteries, but batteries is not the only approach. So we’re pursuing many different options relative to energy storage. We're all about options. In the end, we’re not going to be the ones who decide what happens in the actual implementation in the world, what we’re going to do is put the technical options forward and those will then be available to see what the best fit is for the needs and politics of the future.
AGL: How is energy research changing, and how is ARPA-E helping to facilitate that?
EW: I would say that at the mountain view, energy research is changing by [having] a much greater focus on all the different aspects of the energy system. How [everything] works together is becoming much more part of the planning, as opposed to just looking at oil, just looking at solar, wind, gas. The systems aspect of energy is becoming much more important in energy research.
AGL: So in other words, you see oil and gas experts working directly with professionals in solar, wind, biofuels, and so forth?
EW: To some extent, but maybe more than that, in terms of energy policy and planning, understanding how those things fit together. And how they can fit together in the future.
AGL: And on a smaller scale, how is energy research changing?
EW: What I see at a granular level at ARPA-E is a real attention to almost an Edisonian approach of identifying new opportunities coming out of cutting-edge research and seeing how they can be pulled into a product. So (for example) here's a new high-temperature material — we’ll look at [how] we can bring it in for fuel cells. So what I'm seeing in the ARPA-E projects is an attention to a lot of diverse high-tech opportunities and how as individual technologies they're just individual technologies, but they can be brought together to make a product that will have impact.
AGL: Do all ARPA-E funded projects have a timeline in terms of investing in research and converting it into a product?
EW: Our operational model is very much focused on a set of milestones which we negotiate with the project teams. So initially when we set out a focused opportunity announcement, it has in it a set of goals, both technical goals and market-readiness goals. And then when the proposals come in and we assess them, we work with the teams and we set up milestones to identify what they will have to meet if they are going to meet their goals within the two-to-three years of the grant. And that's a really productive way of doing research and it’s something that ARPA-E has pioneered and developed.
AGL: How is ARPA-E collaborating with other nations and with traditional oil and gas companies?
EW: I would say that our engagement with other countries is in the idea exchange. How do we really do business, how can the ARPA-E model help them, and what can we learn from their ways of doing business and what their problems are? That’s been a really interesting focus for us. In terms of oil and gas, we definitely have an “all of the above” approach, as per the Administration, and we have our three mission goals which are reducing emissions (including greenhouse gas emissions), improving energy efficiency, and reducing dependence on energy imports. So when we look for projects, we’re looking for at least one of those three, in a very strong way, and not undermining any of the other two. We have projects that we’re doing that involve natural gas and how it can be used to improve energy efficiency in our systems, and that's great for us, so we would work with gas companies, with any company, on projects that fall within our mission space.
AGL: How would you advise physicists who want to become more active in energy research, or ARPA-E activities?
EW: It comes back to what I was saying earlier about how the cutting-edge technology can be sitting there ready to go and it needs to be pulled into a project, so I would advise physicists to be open to the idea of getting engaged with a big collaborative team and pulling their cutting-edge great idea into something that has applications. You got to step out of your comfort zone and bring your physics into the development process.
AGL: Anything else you'd like to share with the readers?
EW: Well I've been a member of APS for a long time and so I'm delighted to be here as a physicist. And as we've been talking about, a physics background is wonderful preparation for working throughout the energy industry and addressing the impacts and the problems our society faces.
Alaina G. Levine is president of Quantum Success Solutions, a science career and professional development consulting enterprise. She can be contacted through www.alainalevine.com
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