Meet the Program Director: Dr. Steven Singer
Dr. Steven Singer currently serves as a Program Director for ARPA-E and is a Senior Scientist in the Biological Systems and Engineering Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. At ARPA-E, he is focused on reimagining nitrogen and carbon management in agriculture and biomanufacturing.
What brought you to ARPA-E?
I’ve had a long engagement with ARPA-E, early in my career I was the PI for a project in the Electrofuels program, which was the first big grant I managed at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and I have been involved in a few additional ARPA-E projects. I observed that the ARPA-E Program Directors strove to find new, transformative pathways to solve our biggest energy issues and I wanted to contribute to this mission.
Tell us about your background
I am trained as an organic chemist, but I have worked primarily in biochemistry and microbiology through most of my career. For the past 15 years, I have been a group leader at the Joint BioEnergy Institute, studying the microbial bioconversion of plants and CO2 to fuels and chemicals. I am really fascinated by microbial metabolism and how microbes function together in communities.
How does your past work in microbial bioconversion and metagenomic analysis drive your current work supporting ARPA-E’s mission of developing entirely new ways to generate, store, and use energy?
My group intensively studied how microbial communities, often called microbiomes, deconstruct plant biomass in bioreactors. We did these experiments to discover new enzymes that may be applied to the conversion of biomass to biofuels. Metagenomic analysis was critical to this discovery process and we developed new techniques to study these microbiomes. In coming to ARPA-E, I want to build programs that employ these intensive methods to study microbiomes, but to reduce the energy used and greenhouse gases emitted during the growth and harvest of biofuel crops such as corn and soybeans.
What’s it been like to work at ARPA-E now that you’ve got a few months under your belt to reflect?
There is no better place than ARPA-E to understand where the frontier of energy research is and what the most pressing issues are in transitioning our economy away from fossil fuels. I am really impressed with the thought and detailed analysis that my fellow Program Directors put into designing programs. I must mention the key role of the ARPA-E in making the agency a great place to work.
What existing ARPA-E programs will you be working on at ARPA-E?
In what innovative ways would you like to explore the sources, production and supply chain of nitrogen and phosphorous to reduce their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions?
My first program concept is to develop a new nitrogen cycle in agriculture focusing on bioenergy crops. This new cycle will reduce the need for synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, which requires large amount of energy to manufacture and generates significant CO2 emissions. Instead, we will take advantage of native and engineered microbes to deliver the nitrogen that plants need to grow. This replacement will emphasize the interaction of these microbes with plant roots. We are also interested in exploring biological approaches to mitigating nitrous oxide emissions, which are a byproduct of the nitrogen we apply to agricultural fields. Nitrous oxide emissions are the most significant greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and mitigating these emissions is an important component of preventing global warming. I am also exploring biological approaches to mobilizing phosphorous in soil, which is the other major component of fertilizer. A challenging, but rewarding aspect of developing agricultural programs is the broad range of stakeholders we engage with to understand the technical white space and applications, from scientists doing cutting-edge molecular biology to farmers who will apply these technologies in the field.
What new program areas or technical whitespaces are you interested in exploring?
In addition to thinking about agricultural element cycling, I am also thinking about where we source and how we deploy carbon in a decarbonized world. While there are exciting developments in generating carbon-free renewable energy, carbon-based products, like chemicals, polymers and materials, are still the foundation of our economy. How will we synthesize these carbon-based products when we no longer rely on fossil fuels is an open and important question.
What do you hope to accomplish during your tenure at ARPA-E?
I think ARPA-E Program Directors are in a unique position to catalyze new thinking about the energy transition to non-fossil sources of energy. I hope the programs I develop will help define new directions in agriculture and biomanufacturing that will facilitate this energy transition.