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Meet the Program Director: Dr. William Horak

We sat down with Program Director Dr. William Horak to chat about his professional experiences, interest in advanced thermal systems, nuclear energy, and combined heat and power, along with his vision for his time at ARPA-E.

Dr. William Horak  currently serves as a Program Director for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). He comes to ARPA-E from Brookhaven National Lab, where he worked for 40 years. He served in leadership roles as the Chair of the Energy Science and Technology Department and as Chair of the Nuclear Science and Technology Department. He was part of the DOE team that analyzed the Chernobyl accident and managed numerous programs in nuclear safety, international safeguards, and energy-systems development.

What brought you to ARPA-E?

I had worked with ARPA-E on workshops and as a reviewer. I found that to be a rewarding and challenging experience. I had just retired from Brookhaven National Laboratory after 40 years. When the opportunity arose to become a Program Director (PD) for ARPA-E, I said yes.

Can you tell us about your technical background?

I originally worked on combined heat and power technologies, involving devices such as gas turbines that can produce both electricity and process heat. I applied that research to advanced reactor designs such as high temperature gas cooled reactors and liquid metal cooled reactors. When the Chernobyl accident occurred, I was drafted to work on the DOE team analyzing the accident. I recommended programs to improve Russian designed reactor safety since all their designs were set up to provide electricity and distribute heat to the neighboring cities. It was a great learning experience to understand how other countries solve technical challenges in the energy space.

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

I had the opportunity to work on projects with international teams. I learned that there are always multiple ways to solve an energy problem. The challenge is solving them in a way that maximizes the societal benefits within the constraints of the society you are working in. A good solution in the US will probably not be an optimum solution elsewhere.

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

ARPA-E is a challenging place to work. We are always pushing the boundaries of what can be accomplished. However, it is also a very supportive place to work. I can ask the other PDs and Technology-to-Market Advisors for their input and advice, which was greatly appreciated when I first started. ARPA-E’s leadership includes brilliant researchers who always have good ideas on how to develop and implement my programs. I’m also grateful for all the staff that handle all the non-technical challenges so I can focus on the technical ones.

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

Instead of “technical whitespaces,” I prefer to refer to them as high impact opportunities. I am currently working on an area that is within the nuclear fuel cycle portfolio, a recent addition to ARPA-E’s authorization, on how to reduce the impact of nuclear waste on the environment through a process called transmutation. 

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

ARPA-E’s first director, Dr. Arun Majumdar, said that ARPA-E should not try to hit singles but should swing for the fences and hit home runs. I would like at least one of my programs to have a project that leaves the stadium and lands in the parking lot.