5 Questions with UCLA’s Laurent Pilon, ARPA-E Program DirectorBy Nicole Wilkins
A face familiar to UCLA is serving an appointment as a new Program Director at the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Project Agency – Energy (ARPA-E). Laurent Pilon, professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering and member of the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA as well as the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability is working to address global climate and energy challenges in his new role.
For the past five years previous, Pilon was director of the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship – Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems (INFEWS) program at UCLA. The five-year $3 million dollar grant worked to fill a critical void in the workforce — helping urban centers thrive under the pressures of global climate change.
Pilon’s area of research focuses on the nexus of interfacial and transport phenomena, radiative heat transfer, and materials science for the development of sustainable energy conversion, storage, and efficiency technologies. His focus at ARPA-E is on solar, thermal, and electrical energy storage.
- Congratulations on your appointment as ARPA-E program director. Tell us about what you hope to achieve in this role?
ARPA-E is a unique organization that contributes in major ways to ensuring a secure and clean energy future for the United States and to maintaining our technological leadership in the world. The challenges caused by global climate change are immense and urgent. As an ARPA-E program director, I hope to contribute to addressing some of them.
Specifically, I want to help solve challenges associated with energy storage as we deploy intermittent renewable energy sources (wind and solar) and as we electrify everything including the transportation sector. Here, I hope to create a community of people and companies around a vision for solving some important technical challenges and, by doing so, create economic opportunities for all Americans.
- You have a unique background in science. Where do you draw your inspiration?
To me, science is a human adventure and a team effort, and I draw a lot of inspiration from my collaborators. At UCLA, I have led and been a member of large research teams from different universities and from a wide range of disciplines. These collaborations with such a talented group of researchers were very inspiring. Of course, I have my own interests and expertise but I love learning new things and solving problems with other like-minded researchers. The inspiration comes from the intense energy and focus of the team on common objectives, the selfless contributions, and from the knowledge that we share with each other.
- What are some of the projects you are focused on at ARPA-E?
In the past eight months, I have focused on exploring technological opportunities to ensure the circularity of the battery supply chain in the United States. Circularity is often equated with recycling but this is a limited view and one that might be challenging economically as the price of new batteries continues to decrease. My assessment is that we’ll need more than recycling to achieve circularity. We need to make batteries with the end of life in mind by selecting battery materials, designs, and manufacturing methods that facilitate the servicing of EV batteries and prolong their life. We also need to think of reusing battery cells and remanufacturing battery packs so we can recover the manufacturing value that would otherwise be lost if we were to only recycle.
By the end of this year, 3% of cars on the road worldwide will be electric. This number is going to be multiplied by a factor of 10 in the next 10 years. Indeed, we are just at the beginning of what has been called “the EV revolution.” My concern is that we’re going to produce millions of electric vehicles with batteries that are difficult to deal with when they reach the end of their useful lives. We need to get this right or the EV revolution will have been a missed opportunity by replacing one problem with another.
- How will your experience inform future research projects at UCLA?
In the past 8 months at ARPA-E, I have learned about new energy challenges, new technological solutions, and new business opportunities. It has been like drinking from a firehose. I have no doubt that this experience will affect my future research projects at UCLA. It is too early to tell exactly how. Every day, I meet and talk to scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs around the country. I am fascinated by the ingenuity and the can-do attitude they demonstrate. I hope to learn something from each one of them. I also hope to bring back the thought process I learn and practice every day with my ARPA-E colleagues and centered around the Hellmeier’s questions that we need to answer to justify our research programs. For example, an essential question is “If it works, will it matter?”
- Where did your love of science come from and what advice would you give to other scientists?
My love of science comes from my love of nature. As a kid, I spent a lot of time exploring the largest marshes in France along the Loire river. I observed nature in a flat bottom boat that one pushes with a long wooden pole. I could move very quietly and I would see all kinds of insects and animals and hear all kinds of noises that I would follow. It was like being in a lab and trying to understand how the ecosystem and its individual parts work.
In general, I have always been curious about the world around me. Science has offered answers to many of my questions. Then, I learned about the scientific method and how to rigorously formulate and answer my own questions. I was also lucky to have wonderful teachers who reinforced my love for science and engineering and encouraged me to pursue my education. Finally, in 1991, Pierre-Gilles De Gennes won the Nobel Prize in Physics; he was on French TV and in youth magazines talking about science and showing some experiments he couldn’t explain. I was a senior in high school and this is when I decided that I wanted to study physics and engineering. When I was finishing my PhD, I had the pleasure to have lunch with him in Paris and we exchanged notes on the physics of foams. This kind of encounter and exchange made me feel part of a community and made me want to contribute.
My advice to other scientists would be to pursue their curiosity wherever it might lead them including (or in particular) outside their comfort zones and fields of expertise. They can work with others, continue their intellectual growth, and be even more creative. They need to find or create the environment that enables them to do that.
Read more about Pilon’s role with ARPA-E here: https://arpa-e.energy.gov/news-and-media/blog-posts/meet-program-director-dr-laurent-pilon