ARPA-E Program Director Dr. Cory Phillips Q&A Blog

Meet the Program Director: Dr. Cory Phillips

We sat down with our latest Program Director, Dr. Cory Phillips, to discuss his background in industrial decarbonization and his ambitious goals for his time at ARPA-E.

Dr. Cory Phillips currently serves as a Program Director for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). As a chemical engineer, his focus at ARPA-E is on catalysis (discovery & scale-up) & reaction engineering (CRE) for renewable fuels and energy related applications and process technology, as well as tribochemical engineering of surfaces for energy conservation applications. 

What brought you to ARPA-E?

I've known about ARPA-E for a while now, even serving as a concept paper reviewer a few years ago. I've also served as a merit reviewer with several offices across the U.S. Department of Energy looking at various stages of technology development, but not at the early, proof-of-concept stages like many projects funded here in ARPA-E. The opportunity to pick these early-stage winners, while positively impacting the technical progress of whole communities and industries, was extremely attractive to me, especially since I came from a small startup focused on climate technology that had already seized its Series A funding round when I joined. At ARPA-E, I could potentially do something innovative and special to help accelerate the progress of the overall decarbonization/energy transition effort of multiple start-ups given the aggressive domestic climate targets facing our nation.

Can you tell us about your technical background?

My academic training from my undergraduate through my post-doctorate has been in chemical engineering with an emphasis on discovery, synthesis, characterization, and testing of heterogenous catalysis along with the corresponding experimental reaction engineering and process development for alternative energy, biofuels, hydrocarbon processing, hydrogen generation and CO2 conversion applications across multiple scales (e.g. nano, micro, lab, pilot, commercial). I worked as an engineering individual contributor and led technical teams across several industries (e.g. automotive, energy, oil & gas, climate) from research to manufacturing business units at start-ups to Fortune 50 organizations. As a result of my time spent in materials discovery, tribology, and refining, I developed a love and appreciation for big data, data science, data quality, and multivariate statistical modeling.

Looking back at your past professional experiences, how have they informed your current understanding of energy issues?

In the 90's, we were motivated by peak oil forecasts that led us to believe that oil production would decline by 2030, so we researched and created alternative energy carriers such as fuel oxygenates along with the catalysts and chemical processes to manufacture them. Furthermore, there were regulatory pressures on reducing emissions and improving the energy efficiency of stationary and vehicular power plants, so we ushered in the first hydrogen economy. I remember receiving major push back from traditional industry researchers during those times regarding the inadequacy of biofuels scale and impossibility of fuel cell vehicle market penetration. Yet, due to progressive government policy and legislation, first generation biorefineries emerged capable of producing 10% of the U.S. gasoline demand as ethanol. Fast forward a generation (20 years) later, we are on the cusp of facilitating the largest energy transition known to the modern world, and the same resounding themes of scale (electric grid), emissions (CO2, CH4) and process efficiency remain front and center to the conversation.  The difference now is that even more is at stake than just energy security this time, and my experience has taught me that this will require advanced tools and key collaborations to accelerate both the innovation and development of energy related process technology. The petroleum community has a wonderful, rare opportunity to become a zero-carbon emitting industry and rethink how to use a barrel of oil during the transition to meet distillate and solid carbon demand. Likewise, climate engineers and technologists of this new age have a chance to reshape the petrochemical industry for plastics and materials since all of the carbon we need for this transition is already in the atmosphere or currently available as terrestrial biogenic carbon.

What are your initial impressions of working at ARPA-E?

I am truly honored to be part of the ARPA-E cohort for this moment in history.  From my initial impressions, the office culture seems to model the attributes of the best and most innovative organizations across the globe; namely, high levels of trust, vulnerability, collaboration and ideation, strong engagement, respect, psychological safety, and execution.  I feel like I'm part of a diverse, multidisciplined, prestigious energy think tank with highly functional, accomplished, intelligent colleagues from universities, national labs, and industry here to serve our country. Our senior leadership is fearless and knows how to dream big while meeting the urgent, U.S.-centric technology commercialization needs by funding programs that galvanize external investment. This business operating model for ARPA-E is effective, successful, technically invigorating, and fast moving—and we have the metrics to prove it.

Now that you have been at ARPA-E for a few months, what new program areas or technical whitespaces do you plan to explore?

My programmatic thrust continues to be R&D acceleration and related enabling tools thereof for high-throughput material synthesis, characterization, discovery, and optimization, such as automation hardware & software, AI/ML (in silico analysis), multivariate statistical design, and on-line process analytical tech. Because these tools are cross-cutting, it's really a matter of finding the most impactful applications that align with ARPA's mission, things like: carbon capture, NH3 synthesis and novel carbon conversion chemistry, covering traditional thermochemical and electrochemical platforms across all phases (gas, liquid, solid and plasma.) I'm collaborating and aligning with my fellow Program Directors who also have similar interests like, Phil Kim, Ahmed Diallo, Jim Seaba, Bob Ledoux, Peter de Bock, and Jack Lewnard who along with our research fellows (e.g. Joe Melville, Julia Greenwald, Anil Ganti) are assisting me in sculpting this whitespace. This ARPA-E team is truly amazing. We are already seeing a glimpse of this technical community emerge with some of the applicants to the SPARKS program, which is quite reassuring.

Unfortunately, it's just not good enough to discover a new family of catalysts or materials and perform the big data science. In order to have a true shot at commercialization and get a conceptual chemical process in the hands of a tried and true professional EPC partner requires a preliminary design. A project starting from catalyst discovery through process synthesis and technology development can take anywhere from 7 - 10 years depending on the degree of innovation difficulty involved (and an additional 3 - 5 yrs to complete detailed design and construction at scale). We would like to see the timescale for the first part (pre-EPC) of this process reduced to months. To make this hope into a reality, the entire workflow through generating block flow and process flow diagrams must be debottlenecked and automated which is where novel ML algorithms must be employed again to streamline this task and perform the design iterations automatically. This is like having the "Archimedes Lever" of process design engineering starting from the catalyst with Structure-Property-Function-Process Relationships. We have programs from the past that we can build upon like DIFFERENTIATE and adopt lessons learned. I'm also involved in programs aimed at decarbonizing traditional industries like steel manufacturing (e.g. ROSIE) and using zero-carbon heat for refinery applications.

What do you hope to accomplish during your tenure at ARPA-E?

There isn't much time in a typical ARPA-E Program Director tenure, so my goal is to quickly release inspirational FOAs that impact our country and galvanize an emerging industry and corresponding technical R&D community on their way to commercialization. I'm looking forward to funding projects with teams that really want to achieve commercialization and not remain sequestered in R&D. I want to promote teaming at the next level using different collaboration tools and strategies. Hopefully, I get an opportunity to engage and collaborate with external investors who are serious about seeding the next generation of promising energy process technology.