Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose!

with new Program Director Jenifer Shafer

At ARPA-E, we develop energy technologies that can enhance the economic and energy security of the United States through 5 core goals:

1. reducing imports of energy from foreign sources
2. reducing energy-related emissions, including greenhouse gases
3. improving the energy efficiency of all economic sectors
4. providing transformative solutions to improve the management, clean-up, and disposal of radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel; and
5. improving the resilience, reliability, and security of infrastructure to produce, deliver, and store energy

By working towards these 5 goals, we aim to ensure that the United States maintains a technological lead in developing and deploying advanced energy technologies. Some of these goals have been part of ARPA-E’s technology portfolio’s development since the agency opened its doors in 2009, but providing transformative solutions to improve the management, clean-up, and disposal of radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel is a new part of our mission here which has required us to bring in new perspectives to address this challenge!

The main way we bring in new perspectives to ARPA-E is through our Program Directors, technical experts who bring fresh new ideas to the agency on a rotating-basis and who lead program development and management for new technologies we look to explore. To address our new goal related to radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel management, we turned to Dr. Jenifer Shafer who brings a diverse background in nuclear waste research from the National Labs, academia, and as a former awardee on a number of government R&D projects. While focusing on developing innovative and proliferation resistant technologies to manage nuclear waste and used nuclear fuel at ARPA-E, Dr. Shafer will also help manage some of ARPA-E’s existing nuclear programs and projects, particularly those in our Generating Electricity Managed by Intelligent Nuclear Assets (GEMINA) program.

Before joining ARPA-E, Dr. Shafer served on the faculty at Colorado School of Mines as an Associate Professor in the Chemistry Department and Nuclear Science & Engineering Program. Prior to that, she worked for two years as a Scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Dr. Shafer received her Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry from Washington State University, and a B.S. in Chemistry from Colorado State University. She was the 2019 Chair of the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) Division of Nuclear Science & Technology, a member of the 2017 ACS Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research’s Class of Influential Researchers, and a 2014 Department of Energy (DOE) Early Career awardee. Dr. Shafer currently serves on the ACS Committee on Science. Additionally, Dr. Shafer has co-authored several book chapters, roughly 60 technical manuscripts and has lead or collaborated on a number of projects for the Departments of Energy, Homeland Security, and Defense.

We recently sat down with Dr. Shafer to discuss her career, her interests in energy technology, and what new white spaces she’s looking to explore while serving as a Program Director with ARPA-E.

What got you interested in a career in energy technology R&D?

Like many people, concerns over climate change and identifying viable solutions for clean energy brought my interest into energy technology R&D. As a chemist, the idea of recycling elements (such as uranium) and putting them back in a reactor so they could produce more energy seemed like such an elegant way to address used nuclear fuel challenges. There are so many more materials we can get out of used nuclear fuel (like precious metals) and, if we build advanced reactors, we can transmute the long-lived radioactive materials to make them much shorter lived. Nuclear energy is a really powerful source of clean energy and supporting the recovery of valuable materials, while providing a path towards management of used nuclear fuel, seemed like a compelling opportunity for someone who was very interested in chemistry at the part of the periodic table that not many people know about!

You come to ARPA-E from the Colorado School of Mines and previously worked at Pacific Northwest National Lab, so you have a split academia/research background working in a few different science-focused roles. Can you tell us a bit about your work with PNNL and with CSM?

Sure, my work at PNNL was very focused on remediation of the Hanford site in south central Washington state and developing chemical processes that could support effective management strategies regarding the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle (i.e. used nuclear fuel). When I transitioned to working at Colorado School of Mines, opportunities emerged to support research in nuclear forensics and do chemistry at the extreme edge of the periodic table. The research lab at Mines is one of the few facilities in the world that works with rare elements, such as berkelium, californium and einsteinium. This broad perspective in several areas relevant to nuclear science and radiochemistry has made a significant impact on the programs I would like to develop while at ARPA-E.

You’ve also led a number of R&D projects that have received funding from various federal research agencies, particularly from DOE, DoD, and DHS. How will you apply your experience as an awardee to your new role working with ARPA-E as a Program Director at this point in your career?

In all areas of my DOE, DoD and DHS funded research, there have been opportunities to develop new chemical technologies that could fundamentally change the types of chemical processes that are used for remediation of the Hanford site, management of used nuclear fuel or technical forensic signatures that are used to gather information related to nuclear trafficking or a nuclear event. As an ARPA-E Program Director, I’m very excited to take a similar mind set of developing technology that fundamentally disrupts a given technical space to operating much closer to the tech-to-market interface to understand what is necessary to develop technologies from incredibly nascent thoughts to deployment in the energy sector.

In your opinion, what are a few technical spaces that you think ARPA-E could have an impact in?

I’m focused on a couple technical spaces right now. One is management of used nuclear fuel. We have approximately 80,000 metric tons of used nuclear fuel that does not have a disposal and use plan. There are technical solutions that could simplify disposal and provide opportunities for using crucial elements that already enriched in used nuclear fuel relative to their abundance in nature. These include precious metals such as ruthenium, palladium, rhodium. At current prices for rhodium (~$30,000/oz), there is $1.1 million dollars’ worth of rhodium in 1 metric ton of UNF…meaning we have a lot of very valuable rhodium in our used nuclear fuel! This has some caveats, not all of the rhodium has cooled sufficiently to be useful, but this is meant to be illustrative of the type of material that we are throwing away by not appropriately recovering and treating used nuclear fuel.

There are other materials in the used nuclear fuel that are valuable too, such as the materials the fissile material that could be put back into the reactor to make energy, or medical radioisotopes that could be recovered to treat people.

Outside of the above, what is one “crazy” idea that you would love to see tech R&D focus on to make a huge impact?

I would love to develop technologies that would improvement engagement between communities and large-scale energy projects. Large projects sometimes do not engage with communities sufficiently to get community buy-in and this can hamper development of the project. I think there are some opportunities to be more proactive in community engagement and address community concerns beyond the standard townhalls that are legally obligated. Leveraging and developing new technologies do this seems like a potential opportunity for ARPA-E!