ARPA-E Goes Underground

Q&A with GOPHURRS Program Director Dr. Phil Kim

ARPA-E hired Dr. Philseok Kim during the height of the pandemic to lend his wealth of expertise in materials to the energy landscape. Previously the co-founder and CTO of Adaptive Surface Technologies, spun-out of an ARPA-E-funded Harvard University project focused on non-slip coatings to prevent marine fouling and improve the fuel economy of the shipping sector, Dr. Kim was a familiar face with a unique background and something distinct and exciting to offer in energy.

Nearly three years later, we check in with Dr. Kim to learn how his previous experience prepared him for his current challenge: improving the reliability and resiliency of the electric grid by cost-effectively, safely, and rapidly undergrounding power lines via the GOPHURRS program.

Thanks for sitting down with us, Dr. Kim! Before we talk about GOPHURRS, let’s take a step back and discuss your background and how you came to ARPA-E in the first place. In some sense, you were a pretty unique hire for the agency. What was your interest in energy way back in 2020?

I launched Adaptive Surface Technologies back in 2014 while the Harvard team was performing an ARPA-E OPEN program project on anti-ice coating. It was obvious to move the project to a company, and we pivoted to develop fouling-resistance coatings for ship hulls that could improve fuel efficiency and subsequently reduce emissions. I am grateful to ARPA-E for recognizing the potential of an early-stage technology and supporting our efforts to commercialize the technology.

I was drawn into the energy sector after attending the annual ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit for a few years. I began to recognize the need to address emerging energy-related challenges and wanted to devote myself further to the energy sector. The 2019 ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit in Denver was a pivotal moment for me as I became serious about making a career shift, I expressed my interest to ARPA-E Program Directors and Fellows who encouraged me to apply for a Program Director job at ARPA-E. I am glad that I was able to join the agency in the following year.

That’s an interesting background for someone working on undergrounding powerlines! How does a chemist with a couple decades of experience in materials and surfaces decide to focus on something like undergrounding powerlines through the GOPHURRS program?

I was initially looking into rapidly decarbonizing the built environment by connecting buildings with shared pipelines that could serve as either a heat source or sink for ground source heat pumps where the pipeline is a shared infrastructure that could also tap into low grade waste heat sources, large-scale community-shared thermal energy storage (TES), and geothermal boreholes to make up heat or cooling during a peak day. I still think it is a fascinating idea, but turning such an idea into an ARPA-E program was not a straightforward task since the agency is focused on the development of new technologies rather than the enhancement of existing ones. I then started looking at how pipelines could be installed and quickly realized that doing so in populated areas would be a very disruptive, slow, and potentially very expensive process. It didn’t take a long time for me to identify that burying powerlines is an urgent need for the power grid. Electrification and decarbonization is necessary in addition to dramatically improving the reliability and resilience of the grid infrastructure by undergrounding them.

Tell us a little more about the unique challenges associated with undergrounding technologies. What are the major hurdles we need to overcome?

Today’s undergrounding construction is largely based on open trenching, which is very disruptive to the surrounding communities (e.g., detouring traffic, nearby businesses will be impacted, environmental impact), slow, and up to ten times the cost of building overhead powerlines. Utilities always want to underground more powerlines to improve the reliability and the customer experience with less power outages. The cost of undergrounding then gets passed to the customers via their utility bills. Everyone wants to have reliable power, but no one would be happy to see a significantly higher utility bill. Therefore, reducing the cost of undergrounding is the major hurdle we must overcome to achieve more reliable electric power. I believe there are technology solutions that could enable big cost savings.

Let’s dig a little deeper – pun very much intended - into the technical side of GOPHURRS. What kind of technologies are you targeting to move the needle in this space?

My vision is to develop an autonomous drilling tool that can thread powerlines underground without causing negative externalities. However, drilling just several feet below cities and towns while following the terrain is not an easy task with today’s drilling technologies. Techniques such as horizontal directional drilling make this difficult due to the limited steerability and turning radius with multiple involved steps. Also, there are many other previously installed or even undocumented legacy pipelines and infrastructure underneath, and we must keep them from being damaged while drilling operations take place. Therefore, we need to develop new drilling technologies that provide tighter turns and controls with less steps to install powerlines. They must also establish tools that can provide the subsurface intelligence to precisely map and locate existing infrastructure and obstacles, and ideally be able to ‘look ahead’ of the drill in real-time during the operation. Finally, the ends must meet electrically when powerlines are pulled through, known as cable splicing. Cable splicing is made 100% manually by underground crews with simple hand tools and kits inside a hot and humid underground vault. This can result in a high level of human error that can shorten the service life of powerlines unexpectedly. Therefore, the GOPHURRS program also aims to develop an automated splicing machine or completely redesign the splicing process, to allow for the operators to install ‘error-free’ cable splices.

And what about the human element? Who will be impacted by GOPHURRS technologies? I would imagine the oil and gas community is taking a keen interest in your work.

We need to at least quadruple the grid capacity in the next three decades to electrify many things and be able to reach net zero goals. However, the workforce necessary to build out the grid is steadily decreasing. Therefore, we need to develop and provide new tools for the workforce to be much more efficient in installing new powerlines as well as burying overhead powerlines. The global future is leaning towards more electrification. Therefore, having reliable electric power is even more important and will impact everyone. It also addresses energy equity issues as low-income communities are generally more negatively impacted when power outages occur. In fact, many existing drilling and sensing technologies in the oil and gas industry could be adopted and translated for use in civil engineering settings such as burying the powerlines. Therefore, I believe the oil and gas community could play an important role in developing GOPHURRS technologies as well as deploying them at a large scale.

What’s next for you at ARPA-E? Are there other technical white spaces beyond GOPHURRS where you want to make an impact?

My immediate interest is in helping establish a secure, domestic supply chain of critical minerals using phytoextraction, which leverages metalliferous plants on natural and waste sites. This could potentially become a carbon-negative alternative to traditional mining. With the recent advancement of precision agriculture and biotechnology tools, such as genetic engineering tools that enabled the development of COVID-19 vaccines in a record short period of time, I believe we could develop optimized hyperaccumulators and farm them to harvest critical minerals in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way while improving previously non-arable lands or cleaning up the wastes left by traditional mining. Another forthcoming area I have started looking at is autonomously developing new materials (catalysts, ion conductors, thermoelectrics, etc.) by integrating domain experts and AI/ML specialists, employing large language models for knowledge bridging, and autonomous and high-throughput experiments for validation of newly gained knowledge.