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Gone Fission with New Program Director Bob Ledoux

Newest ARPA-E Program Director Dr. Robert (Bob) J. Ledoux’s professional experience ranges from professor to entrepreneur and his patents from nonintrusive cargo inspection to medical technologies. Prior to joining ARPA-E, the Boston native founded Passport Systems, a cargo inspection technology company, where he served as director and CEO. Previous to that, he developed control algorithms and hardware used in semiconductor manufacturing equipment as vice president of Pyramid Technical Consultants—and before that was CEO of a medical instruments company that developed and brought to market high-technology products, including the XKnife therapeutic radiation therapy system. Dr. Ledoux earned his B.S. and PhD degrees in physics at MIT, where he later served as an associate professor of physics until 1990.

Recently we had a chance to visit with Dr. Ledoux to discuss how he will bring his experience to bear to further ARPA-E’s mission.

How did you become interested in energy?

As a nuclear physicist, you’re always connected to the fission and fusion worlds—much of what you learn is associated with energy. Nuclear fission and fusion innovations have always greatly interested me.

Taking a step back, how did you get interested in physics?

I love physics—I’ve been interested in it my entire life. When I entered MIT, it had one of the largest nuclear physics group in the country. I started as a freshman doing physics work and was able to work on experiments at Brookhaven National Lab in New York as an undergraduate. I had great mentors, which made it very exciting. Initially I started with low-energy nuclear physics but then transitioned to high energy nuclear physics, which is what they’re still exploring at CERN.

What drew you to work at ARPA-E? 

At this stage of my career, I feel free to work toward solutions to one of the world’s biggest problems—a consistent and expanding source of energy that does not impact the planet. This is a giant concern hanging over everything in our country.  The population is growing now, so energy demands are up. But even if population growth flattens as predicted in the next 50 years, it is imperative that we move to lower greenhouse gas-emitting energy production. 

How have your professional experiences informed your understanding of energy issues?

Technology and physics are always interrelated, and I’ve always been involved in high-tech endeavors. My businesses have worked with very large systems with lots of stakeholders, which is what ARPA-E does every day. Whether we developed technology for cargo inspections to prevent terrorism or medical devices to help people, the mission was to apply technology to do some good.

For new technology, you have to consider how it intersects with government and societal preferences and how it fits into the existing systems or infrastructures as well as its efficacy and cost. The best solutions are those that the stakeholders actually want. And sometimes the newest thing doesn’t always satisfy that.

As you think about potential programs here at ARPA-E, what technical areas are you focusing on?

The technical areas would be related to nuclear physics—fission and fusion power generation. Those areas are rapidly evolving and the related ARPA-E programs are going to facilitate their evolution. There’s a nexus of interest in the government and citizens in coming up with better and cleaner solutions to power.

I’m also interested in global transportation, primarily maritime and rail. These are the last bastions of fossil fuel consumers. Getting these industries to zero greenhouse gas emissions is much more difficult because private interest drives them to such a great extent. And the variety of the logistics and different stakeholders involved is immense. Finding a solution would be a real step forward.

What do you want to accomplish at ARPA-E?

Bringing projects from conception to final deployment—taking a novel solution and developing the enabling technologies that bring it to market—is tremendously satisfying both on a personal and scientific level.

Are there any “crazy idea” technical spaces that you might be thinking about down the road to explore during your time as a Program Director here at ARPA-E?

I would like to address the issue of dramatically reducing spent nuclear fuel. Could we make some change in the fuel cycle that would allow us to do a better job than bury it in a long term depository? Satisfying all stakeholders, while taking safety and nonproliferation into account, will not be easy. I am also very interested in the current ARPA-E fusion program and any new and disruptive ideas in this field that could dramatically reduce cost and speed up commercialization.