Making Energy Storage and Electric Aviation "Cool"

with new Program Directors Peter de Bock and Halle Cheeseman

ARPA-E’s mission to change the way we get, use, and store energy isn’t just something reflected in our broad technology R&D portfolio. It is ingrained in the very fabric of our agency’s structure. Since our programs tackle challenges across the energy technology spectrum, we’re constantly bringing in new staff with fresh perspectives and ideas to develop the energy technologies of tomorrow.

Our Program Directors (PD) are our main source of these fresh perspectives and ideas. They come up with the ideas for our programs and lead program development and management for new technology spaces. They serve an average 2-3 year term to keep that idea flow constant. At the conclusion of their time with the agency, the next generation of PDs build on the progress they’ve made. New PD’s further execute their research, and seek out new spaces for us to explore in response to changing trends in the energy technology industry.

Two of our newest PDs, Dr. Peter de Bock and Dr. Halle Cheeseman, come to ARPA-E from the private sector but from very different technical backgrounds. They bring with them almost 50 years’ combined experience in energy technology development, both in technical areas where ARPA-E is already working as well as fresh new spaces with the desire to drive energy innovation.

Headshot of ARPA-E Program Director Dr. Peter de Bock

Dr. Peter de Bock has worked on everything from cryogenics to wind turbines, computer chips to power electronics, and heat exchangers to jet engines. Raised in the Netherlands, Dr. de Bock holds degrees from academic institutions in the Netherlands, US and the UK, recently completing a focus on a system perspective on electrification of aviation and joins us from GE Research where he was principal engineer, platform leader for Power and Thermal Management Systems and principal investigator on advanced programs in the areas of additive heat exchangers and advanced propulsions systems. Dr. de Bock is also the chair of the ASME K-16 committee on Heat Transfer in Electronics equipment and holds about 40 patents.

Headshot of ARPA-E Program Director Dr. Halle Cheeseman

Dr. Halle Cheeseman is an electrochemist who has spent his R&D career focused on the development of battery and electrochemical technologies in the private sector. Prior to joining ARPA-E, Dr. Cheeseman served as CTO for Exide Technologies and Spectrum Brands, where he oversaw research and development groups for cutting-edge lithium ion, zinc-air and lead-acid batteries. In this role, Dr. Cheeseman was a thought leader for multiple product categories in their technology portfolios, including high-power battery packs and chargers. Dr. Cheeseman also previously served as Director for lithium ion product development at Duracell, Inc., Vice President of Engineering and Product Development at Encell Technology, Inc., and as an energy storage consultant with Energy Blues LLC.

We recently sat down with Dr. de Bock and Dr. Cheeseman to discuss their careers, their interests in energy technology, and what new white spaces they’re looking to explore while serving as ARPA-E PDs.

What got you interested in a career in energy technology R&D?

deBock: I have always had a deep curiosity to understand the physics of the things around us. When we plug into a socket, do we know where that energy came from? How it was created? Thermodynamics play a key role in the efficiency of our power generation systems and thermal management is typically a key bottleneck to operation limits and efficiency of electronics around us. By having a career in energy technology R&D, we can learn how many of the processes around us work and find solutions to improve them.

Cheeseman: I would love to say that from a young age, I had dreams of becoming an Energy Pioneer, but I must confess I somewhat stumbled into it. As I completed my PhD in Electrochemistry, I saw three obvious technical career paths: corrosion, plating and batteries. Duracell UK offered me a job as a research scientist, and from there began my long career in Batteries. My love for battery technology grew from there, and even today it’s an area that I continue to learn in and am forever excited about new possibilities. New technologies come along that are enablers to solve historical problems, and new applications come along that challenge existing battery technologies to push the boundaries. The “Back to the Future Technology Strategy”, i.e. technologies exist today that did not exist yesterday, and these can be deployed to solve problems that were once viewed as unsolvable. This engaging potential is and always will be what brings me back again and again.

Dr. de Bock, you come to ARPA-E from GE Research, where you worked on engine power and thermal management systems. Can you tell us a bit about your experience there?

de Bock: GE Research is a fabulous place and I was able to work on fundamentals of thermal technology innovations and also explore how to apply them to products in Aviation, Power and Healthcare. Specifically, I spent time at GE working on innovations in electronics thermal management and was able to explore their use in avionics, the computers that fly aircraft. Additionally, I did a lot of work looking at new opportunities in using additive manufacturing for electronics and jet engine propulsion systems.

Dr. Cheeseman, your career has focused on lithium ion battery development, working over your career in senior roles at a number of battery companies. This is a particularly hot space right now, especially with recent developments in the battery storage space. What do you think the biggest challenges are that still exist in this space?

Cheeseman: Our world is poised to move away from its dependence on fossil fuels and to embrace a clean energy future. Seizing this future will require us all to be pulling in the same direction, but also to be using every tool and resource that we have at our disposal. Electrochemical Energy Storage Systems need to be part of this overall solution but raising their performance level and reducing their cost to the required levels is no small task and still remains a crucial challenge.

As someone who has come from a long career in the private sector, what drew you to ARPA-E and working in government at this point in your career?

de Bock: Over my nearly 18 years working at GE, I worked with many government agencies and with the ARPA-E team quite often. I served as principal investigator on GE Research’s ARPA-E HITEMMP project, have served as a reviewer for ARPA-E’s OPEN 2018 program and also contributed to a few other program proposals with ARPA-E, so I’ve become very familiar with the agency itself over time. Frankly, my interactions with ARPA-E have always been inspiring and a lot of fun.

As a researcher, nothing is more exciting than developing bold challenging goals and bringing diverse multi-disciplinary teams together to bridge the technology gaps that are deemed impossible. My sense from working with ARPA-E has been that it’s a very open work environment, where people are able to discuss their ideas freely and pull in top experts and scientists to develop meaningful and impactful programs. This platform was a big draw to me as someone who thrives in a collaborative work environment focused on energy technology research and impact.

Cheeseman: I have never been too into role playing computer games, but as I understand it you have to collect various tools, skills, and items that help you to accomplish missions and defeat enemies along the way. This typically leads to a finale that is the biggest challenge of the game, forcing you to combine everything you’ve learned while playing to win out and succeed. I hope it doesn’t sound too hokey but that is how I feel about ARPA-E and my career leading up to now. I’ve worked for consumer companies and industrial companies. I’ve worked in R&D and manufacturing. I’ve worked for large corporations and start-ups. I’ve worked on Lithium Ion, Zinc-Air and Lead Acid. I am thrilled to be joining ARPA-E and I hope to take all that I have learned over my diverse career for the last 30 years to help the agency achieve its mission of clean, independent and efficient energy production and use.

In your opinion, what are a few technical areas that you think ARPA-E could have an impact in?

de Bock: We are embarking on a future where we will see more and more electric vehicles, which have the potential to be fully powered by renewables. Increasing efficiency and reducing emissions for other transportation areas such as marine and aviation is much more challenging as the weight and volume of current battery systems for those modes of transportation are currently prohibitive.

ARPA-E recently launched the REEACH and ASCEND programs which will strive to deliver a system that can turn carbon neutral fuel into electricity that can drive a highly efficient, compact electric motor. I’d like to explore beyond these programs what is needed to make future low carbon aviation a reality. Advances in the areas of cryogenic fuels, distributed propulsion, system co-design and even superconductivity (low or high temperature) can all play an impactful role when we realize them.

Cheeseman: Let me answer this by posing some questions. As I begin to develop and think about a new program, I’ve been using these questions to frame a problem statement that I hope to address:

  1. What Technical Innovations are necessary to accelerate the adoption of Transportation Electrification?
  2. Is “Not Lithium” enough justification for working on alternative battery and fuel cell initiatives?
  3. Will current R&D programs get us to an advantage versus Lithium Ion or is the gap closing?
  4. What does the intersection look like between advanced battery technologies and our projection and imagination for future vehicles?

Outside of the above, what is one “crazy” idea that you would love to see tech R&D focus on to make a huge impact?

de Bock: Right now, we as a society are embarking on an electrified future where the majority of our energy in power generation and transportation will pass through electronics. As new manufacturing methods have become available in the last few years, I’d like to explore how we can re-imagine the cooling of electronics and new thermodynamic approaches, so that electronic systems can operate more efficiently and compactly. There exists a significant potential here for datacenters, 5G/6G telecom and other electronics, particularly since as semiconductor computer systems and electronics get cooler, they can operate at lower voltages and hence run more efficiently.

I’d like to explore how we can re-imagine cooling efficiently by studying nature. Humans and plants are cooled by evaporation, and humidity plays a huge role in our comfort level. So why do we focus so much on air temperature when we try to cool electronics? Natural cooling processes have been working so well in humans, plants, and other organisms for all of existence, and since they’ve worked this well so far why can’t we try to apply some of these best practices to technology?

For a data center this might mean exploring solutions where we use more “skin-like” evaporative structures that use capillaries to retain and replenish a coolant such that chips can operate at near or below ambient temperatures with very little cooling energy use. Bringing together unique multi-disciplinary teams of biological, material, electrical and thermal scientists to explore these kinds of revolutionary concepts is one of the things I look forward to doing at ARPA-E.

Cheeseman: The development of Metal Air Batteries. The Holy Grail! High Energy Hybrids between Batteries and Fuel Cells. Anodes based on Zinc, Potassium, Lithium, Sodium, Aluminum and Magnesium. Air cathodes utilizing many of the catalysts currently under development. Clean, safe, and compelling energy storage for our future! A grand finale to finishing my battery career…maybe?!