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Q&A with METALS Program Director, Dr. James Klausner

November 25, 2013
Updated July 27, 2016

Spurring a Revolution in American Metal Production: An Interview with Former METALS Program Director, Dr. James Klausner

Updated July 2016: Learn where Dr. James Klausner is now as he looks back on his experiences at ARPA-E as a Program Director.

What was the most interesting or challenging part of program development or management?
Serving as an ARPA-E Program Director is a privilege, and program development provides an opportunity to do an in-depth study around a challenging energy problem and identify critical technology gaps that inhibit solutions. The most interesting part of program development at ARPA-E, is reaching out to science and technology experts across the country to find creative ideas to overcome technology gaps. The process introduces Program Directors to the brightest and most innovative researchers across the United States, and the quality of the personal and technical interactions with such a group are unparalleled.

The process of managing programs allowed me to gain new fundamental knowledge and an understanding of fields that I otherwise would not have worked in. It also forced me to diligently learn enough to understand the underlying science behind the technology development I was managing. The process was simultaneously interesting, challenging, and enlightening.

What was one of your most valuable or memorable experiences at ARPA-E? 
When I first arrived at ARPA-E, I attended an informal Program Directors gathering that included the Assistant Secretary of Energy. One of those at the table asked me about my vision for a new ARPA-E Program. What came next was a passionate dialogue about the science, engineering, and need for such a program. While the conversation was in good spirits and very rich in content, the most intense line of questioning came from the Assistant Secretary himself. It was clear that he was personally very interested in our work and how we were exploring options to solve major energy problems. I walked away having been issued a challenge to refine my proposal, and the conversation helped me to better focus my ideas for an ARPA-E program. So I would say that those informal get-togethers with other Program Directors to discuss energy, science, and engineering are my most memorable experiences. They pushed me to develop better programs and be a better Program Director overall.

Klausner MSUPhoto: James Klausner (center right) at a recent MSU alumni event with Dean of Engineering, Leo Kempel (center left), and colleagues Neil Kane (left) and Stephen Bates (right)

Where are you now? How did being a Program Director at ARPA-E prepare you for your next opportunity? 
I am currently at Michigan State University serving as Chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. ARPA-E prepared me to have a vision for the future and how to organize and encourage a group of highly talented individuals to work as a team toward a common goal. ARPA-E also prepared me to ask detailed questions and be patient enough to listen to and digest the answers. 

I’ve come away from ARPA-E with a spirit and desire to take on big challenges and to be creative and flexible to find the right approach to solving tough problems. Through ARPA-E I have gained an appreciation for the crucial linkage between great science and translating it to transformative technology, and this perspective serves me very well within a great educational institution. ARPA-E believes in changing what is possible through innovation, and it is a very optimistic message to send to engineering students eager to make a difference in the world.

Original Interview from November 25, 2013: Dr. James Klausner of ARPA-E discusses the METALS program and its potential to spur a revolution in American metal production.

Please tell us about your background before coming to ARPA-E.
I have been a professor in mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Florida for about 24 years now. Before coming to ARPA-E, I was heavily involved in research involving thermal energy processes. I received an award from ARPA-E for a project that uses solar energy to produce fuel. While finishing up that project, the agency asked me if I’d be interested in starting a new program. I visited ARPA-E and discovered that this is an ideal environment to develop unique, targeted programs with the potential to be truly transformative in the energy space.

What are your thoughts on serving as a Program Director at ARPA-E?
I love every aspect of ARPA-E – the people, the opportunities. ARPA-E allows me to dive deep into technical problems and understand difficult technical issues and how we can solve them. This enables the agency to set up very relevant programs that can make a difference. Program Directors at ARPA-E come in with a mindset of wanting to change the world and improve the domestic energy landscape. I’m happy to take this opportunity to invest in new technologies where we can bring some intellectual horsepower and do things better than we’re doing now.

What kinds of energy challenges does the METALS program look to address?
One objective of METALS is to develop new processing technologies to convert ore that we dig out of the ground into primary light-metals. Metals of particular interest to us are aluminum, magnesium and titanium due to their high strength-to-weight ratios compared to steel. This ratio means less material is needed for parts of the same strength. Ground vehicles will likely incorporate aluminum and magnesium alloys, while aircraft will require titanium and carbon fiber.

How are these lightweight metals produced today?
The amount of energy consumed in the production of these lightweight metals is immense – much greater than required for the production of steel. However, through new processes, it is theoretically possible to use much less energy to produce these metals. Once producing these metals becomes less costly, they can be more quickly adopted by manufacturers. For instance, compared to stainless steel, titanium is a superior metal, but is also costly because so much energy is required to produce it. Currently, titanium ends up used in only specialized applications. However, the greater availability of low-cost titanium will likely inspire new and better products.

METALS is also about reducing overall lifecycle energy costs. What does this entail?
Lifecycle energy costs follow the life of metal all the way from digging it out of the ground, to creating products, to reclaiming material in those products for scrap once their useful life is over. Since so much energy goes into pulling metal from the ground to start with, we want to reuse as much material as possible. Unfortunately, processing scrap magnesium and aluminum can be particularly challenging. This material is shredded and must be sorted into different grades of alloy. Since this is not yet automated, materials are often shipped overseas to be sorted by hand.  This means that, rather than being re-used domestically, foreign countries instead get the benefits of these metals. The METALS program is developing diagnostic technologies that can specifically identify which alloy/metallic category scraps fit into. These metals can be retained domestically and recycled here in the USA to manufacture components and parts.

How is METALS recycling different from aluminum can recycling that most of us are familiar with?
When recycling aluminum cans, we’re usually aware of the quality and makeup of the metal involved. However, aluminum and additional metals from various other applications – cars, aircraft, etc. are not easy to identify and sort. For instance, once an automobile is shredded in a scrapyard, it’s hard to distinguish the various steel, aluminum, and titanium components from one another. Technology does not yet exist to discern high-quality aluminum and magnesium alloys, and that’s what we’re trying to solve.

How does titanium fit into the mix?
Titanium is light, durable, ductile and very corrosion-resistant. If you build a part out of titanium, it will virtually last forever. It can stand up to harsh environments. It’s a phenomenal metal that manufacturers will definitely take advantage of, if they can get it cheaply. Consider Boeing, for instance; their 787 aircraft uses a titanium frame. If you look at the number of light aircraft projected to be built in the next 10 years, the demand for titanium is going to more than double. If we can make titanium inexpensive enough, demand will grow exponentially. Titanium also has renewable energy applications, like wind turbines that benefit from durable titanium components. Nuclear power applications use seawater condensers with titanium tubes. There are many energy applications and it can enable innovation renewable energy technologies.

How can METALS help to grow the United States economy?
My vision is to use our resources more intelligently, more efficiently, and more cleanly to achieve a new manufacturing revolution and generate wealth here in the United States. In the 1970s, the steel industry in this country was dying. Back then, the innovation that rescued the industry was the steel “minimill.” Minimills took scrap steel and converted it into high-quality steel. We’re trying to enable the development of a similar aluminum minimill that will allow us to recycle scrap into high-grade aluminum or aluminum-magnesium alloys. The success of these projects will foster a renaissance of metal manufacturing in the United States.

What are the prospects of commercialization for these projects?
CAFE standards mandate that in 10 years or so, automotive manufacturers will need to achieve about 53 miles per gallon. The only way to do that is by starting to “lightweight” vehicles using metals other than steel. We hope to enable to replacement of steel auto parts with aluminum or magnesium parts at the same cost. Considering the emergent need for these metals, investment from industry and subsequent commercialization will be guaranteed since we’ll be producing the most competitive aluminum and magnesium in the world.

Interested in learning more about becoming a Program Director at ARPA-E? Explore other ARPA-E program director profiles and apply online here.

As of 2018:

  • For a detailed assessment of several METALS project teams, please click here.