What's "Coming Down the Pipe" with New Program Director Dr. Jack Lewnard

One of our newest Program Directors, chemical engineer Dr. Jack Lewnard, brings a wealth of experience and knowledge from the utility sector as well as the energy non-profit world to ARPA-E. In his career, Dr. Lewnard has focused on challenges in methane production, distribution, and use. Before coming to ARPA-E, he served as Vice President for Business Development for the Chesapeake Utilities Corporation. There, he worked to identify and develop new business opportunities in energy services and infrastructure investments to support natural gas markets. Prior to his time at Chesapeake Utilities, Dr. Lewnard was Vice President and Chief Technology Officer for the non-profit Gas Technology Institute. He was responsible for leading GTI’s long-term technical strategy and vision at their Office of Technology and Innovation, and he has decades of additional experience working to take energy and environmental technologies out of the lab and into commercial operation.  

We recently sat down with Dr. Lewnard to discuss his background in natural gas technology development and commercialization, his career working at various stages of the R&D process, and what he’s looking to work on as a Program Director at ARPA-E.

How did you first become interested in energy?

I grew up during a time when energy and environmental issues were emerging as high priorities across the nation.  Between middle school and graduating from college, the country passed landmark environmental laws, formed the EPA, and went through two “energy crises” that sparked my interest in further understanding these issues and starting a career in the energy space.

You have a very diverse energy-industry background, most recently working in the utility and energy non-profit sectors, and now you’re a Program Director at ARPA-E in the public sector. What drew you to seeing ARPA-E as the latest step of your career?

ARPA-E is a unique place in the federal government – the focus on very difficult yet highly impactful problems, the emphasis on teams working under compressed time frames to get to Go/No-Go milestones, and the level of responsibility and independence placed on Program Directors to define and steer their projects. It’s really an exciting and innovative work environment where you are empowered to get a lot done.

Your more than 30 years’ experience is not just in the utility and energy non-profit sectors, but also in early-stage research and development and in business development and commercialization. How do you think your diverse background will affect your role as a Program Director at ARPA-E?

It’s very difficult to commercialize a new technology in the energy space.  A number of things need to come together in unison. For example, technology, economics, supply chain, and distribution channels, etc. all need to line up just right to help new technology commercialize.  I’ve worked on many projects at various stages of development, in both technical and commercial roles, and have had the chance to see what works well; and learn both from what works and what goes wrong.  I think these experiences over the course of my career will be particularly relevant for developing ARPA-E programs. 

The early stages of technology commercialization are risky, and have a high attrition rate.  ARPA-E’s recent PILOT RFI is intriguing, particularly since ARPA-E is exploring avenues to further support nascent technologies through potential further funding, and is more importantly helping ARPA-E teams by creating an ecosystem to enhance their success rate.

While working for Chesapeake Utilities Corporation you focused on infrastructure investments to support the natural gas market. Can you tell us a bit about the challenges facing natural gas infrastructure, any specific technology areas that you think are on the edge of a breakthrough, and how you might address those challenges at ARPA-E?

Natural gas is critical to the U.S. economy – it’s responsible for 30% of our primary energy, and domestic production has increased 60% in the last 10 years.  Companies have spent billions of dollars to maintain and expand the millions of miles of pipeline infrastructure.  Despite all of this expansion, there are significant economic challenges with rehabilitating older pipeline infrastructure in the urban core and rural areas. I’m interested in exploring technologies that could reduce these rehabilitation costs by a factor of x5 to x10.

There is a need for a robotics system that can rehabilitate natural gas transmission pipes while the pipes continue to supply gas.  As mentioned above, successful technology commercialization requires teams with very diverse skills.  This is an all-inclusive combination of robotics, physics for characterizing the pipes, materials expertise, and GIS and data gurus. Service companies who can bundle all of those components into a commercial system will also be critical. Finally, guidance from regulators and utilities is needed to ensure the final product meets their requirements. It’s an area with potentially large economic impact, and requires collaboration among diverse scientific disciplines—that really interests me and that’s what I’m spending a lot of time thinking about.

What makes you optimistic about the future of pipeline rehabilitation in the United States?

The U.S. made enormous energy infrastructure investments in the post-World War II period to support our nation’s economic growth.  However, domestic energy production leveled off in the 70s, and energy consumption leveled off in the late 90s.  Although the recent increase in energy production spurred investments in new pipelines, we still have an expansive inventory of older infrastructure, so timing is right for new infrastructure rehabilitation technology.  Advances in multiple areas, such as automation, information processing, and composite materials, enables new technology combinations to address this problem.  Finally, there is a cost-saving business case for refurbishing pipeline infrastructure vs. replacement, so private companies are starting to look at entering into this market.

Given your diverse industry background, are there any other “crazy ideas” or technical areas you might be interested in exploring over your term as a Program Director at ARPA-E?

We have a big problem with waste, both in the U.S. and globally, and I think we need to re-imagine waste as a feedstock.  Given the scale of waste, we will need to chase big markets, and energy is one of the largest markets in the world.  So let’s think about how we can repurpose waste into energy, with the advantage of ideally displacing carbon emissions and waste production.

Carbon dioxide could be one of the largest businesses in the next 50 years.  Many people and industry stakeholders are considering how carbon dioxide can be “re-used” as an energy carrier, feedstock, or more effectively incorporated for producing biomass.  Capturing CO2, from emission sources or even air, is a critical step in these processes.  I think there are opportunities to integrate CO2 capture and conversion steps into a more streamlined process to make both steps more efficient and cost effective.

Finally, natural gas is critical for the U.S. economy.  Today, almost all of the methane in our pipelines is from fossil sources.  However, there are many options for producing renewable gas, with as much potential impact as the solar and wind technologies have created for the electric industry.  We need to look at developing new approaches for production of renewable gas, including utilizing methane, hydrogen, and possibly other molecules that can carry energy and are compatible with our existing gas infrastructure.