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Meet the Program Director: Dr. Olga Spahn

We recently sat down with new ARPA-E Program Director, Dr. Olga Spahn, to discuss her time at Sandia National Laboratories, her plans for the ENLITENED program, and her hopes for future R&D investment at the Agency.

What brought you to ARPA-E?

I managed an internal Sandia National Laboratories (SNL) program activity that led to follow on ARPA-E projects. I was also a line manager for ARPA-E performers at SNL. In that capacity, I got to know the ARPA-E Program Director and learned more about ARPA-E mission and program philosophy. I was impressed with what I learned and when the opportunity to take an IPA assignment at ARPA-E came up, I jumped on it. I am passionate about shepherding technology from concept to adoption and want to contribute to solving most pressing energy challenges facing our nation and the world. I believe that innovation in energy technology is critical to our future and ARPA-E is the place where I can be a part of the solution.

Tell us a little bit about your technical background.

I’ve been at SNL for 29 years, mostly as a technical staff member and, more recently, as an R&D manager. I’ve had the opportunity to work in a variety of areas, from semiconductor materials and devices, focusing mostly on optoelectronics and power electronics, to optical MEMS, laser material processing and optical characterization, forensics, non-proliferation technology, to system integration. My educational background is in electrical engineering, with a semiconductor device and materials focus and a dash of nonlinear optics, but that has not stopped me from diving into a variety of fields.

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

Throughout my career as an engineer, it has become clear to me that energy – how we generate it, distribute it and manage it, is intertwined in just about every engineering and scientific endeavor. At one point, I was involved in a “Power on Demand” activity at SNL focused on a broad set of problems with a common theme of energy and power. My subsequent work in systems reinforced ubiquity of this problem.  The interdisciplinary nature of solutions and the creative opportunities they afford have captured my imagination ever since.

What existing ARPA-E programs will you be working on initially at ARPA-E?

I am managing the ENLITENED (ENergy-efficient Light-wave Integrated Technology Enabling Networks that Enhance Data processing) program which seeks to improve HPC and data center energy efficiency by advancing transformative integrated photonic technologies for data transmission and switching to enable novel co-designed network topologies. I also will be managing several OPEN 2021 projects.

In terms of potential new program areas, what out-of-the-box ideas or technical whitespaces do you want to explore once you get settled in?

I am interested in exploring materials, device technologies and systems to support integration of renewable resources into the grid. There is an increasing momentum in power electronics targeting novel solutions in that area. Also, I am intrigued with various aspects of wireless energy transfer and technologies it would require. It would be a game changer for a variety of energy areas – from supporting expansion of IoT devices to wireless distribution and maybe even transmission networks. Another area of interest involves sensors for instrumentation of power generation and distribution and industrial processes, especially in challenging environments, such as high temperature, radiation or electromagnetic interference. I believe that substantial energy efficiency and improved resiliency can be realized through adequate monitoring and closed loop control – all of which requires sensors, not to mention models and control systems.

What do you hope to accomplish by the time your tenure at ARPA-E ends?

I want to make a difference by leading innovation to improve our nation’s energy efficiency and resiliency, environmental sustainability, and technical and industrial competitiveness. I hope to create and lead a portfolio that nurtures innovative R&D solutions, develops enabling technologies, and commercializes them. To paraphrase one of central ARPA-E tenets – I want to “make it work and make it matter.”