Patrick C. McGrath, US Department of Energy, ARPA-E: The Future of Chemical Engineering

As part of AIChE's 110th Year Celebration, this series provides perspectives on the future of chemical engineering from dozens of leaders in industry, academia, and at national laboratories.

We continue with the third featured leader, Patrick C. McGrath, who is deputy director for technology and a program director at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). In 2008, he was a senior consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton, having recently completed his PhD research at the University of California, Berkeley, with Prof. Jeffrey Reimer.

During AIChE's centennial year of 2008, AIChE interviewed Dr. McGrath about his visions for the future of chemical engineering. Below is some of his commentary from that interview:

“The first generations of chemical engineers built what has become the modern petroleum industry. Innovations in catalysis, combined with the improved understanding of thermodynamics and separations, facilitated the production of extraordinarily high-energy-density fuels that are transported safely and easily. This is a remarkable legacy, both for the technological challenges overcome and for the lifestyle petroleum has enabled. Unfortunately, it has become increasingly clear that we have not fully accounted for the true costs of fossil fuels, and our reliance on petroleum is not sustainable over the long term. The key challenge for future generations of chemical engineers is to find alternative sources of energy to reduce (or eliminate) our dependence on fossil fuels. There are many options on this front — batteries for plug-in hybrid electric or all-electric vehicles, biomass-derived fuels, and hydrogen fuel cells are all showing some promise — and each technology requires the accumulated expertise of chemical engineers.” 

“To push these technologies forward, the ‘classical toolkit’ of chemical engineering (kinetics, thermodynamics, transport) and some newer tricks of the trade (advanced modeling, metabolic engineering, materials design, and control on multiple length scales) will be required. The energy infrastructure for modern transportation was created by chemical engineers; as we face the challenge of revamping and replacing that infrastructure, chemical engineers must remain at the forefront.”

Following is McGrath's 2018 perspective:

Looking ahead 25 years, how do you expect your industry/research area to evolve?

Considering how much has changed in just the last 10 years, I’m almost hesitant to make any predictions about the next 25. (As a wise man said, “Predictions are hard, especially about the future.”) The last decade has brought us abundant, cheap natural gas, and more recently renewable electricity and electrochemical energy storage at lower costs and larger scales than one could have reasonably predicted.

These developments will have far-reaching implications for chemical engineering. The tremendous growth in natural gas has already induced a shift in feedstocks for many chemical processes, and this transition will demand continued innovation and leadership from chemical engineers.

The future is uncertain, but with the tremendous interdisciplinary work that chemical engineers already do, we can be leaders in tackling the challenges for the next generation.

Interestingly, the advent of cheap renewable electricity could have similarly large implications. It’s still early, but it’s now possible to imagine places in this country where the cheapest form of energy — electricity or even thermal — could come from renewables. It’s hard to conceive the number of opportunities this would present to re-imagine chemical processess.

Core areas of ChE expertise are being augmented by new expertise in science and engineering at molecular and nanometer scales, in biosystems, in sustainability, and in cyber tools. Over the next 25 years, how will these changes affect your industry/research area?

It takes an interdisciplinary approach to accomplish just about any meaningful innovation. We’ve seen this as a trend, and it is only going to grow. The ability to communicate, collaborate, and innovate across a diverse team is and will continue to be critical.

What new industries/research areas do you foresee?

The performance improvements and cost reductions in lithium-ion batteries in recent years have been nothing short of remarkable — a great legacy for the chemical engineers and electrochemists who made this happen. But considering future needs for an electric grid with much greater penetration of cheap renewable (and variable) sources, we need to look beyond lithium. This was the motivation for the “DAYS” program at ARPA-E, where we are seeking new approaches to deliver long-duration energy storage at costs far below the limits of today’s technologies. This is just one example, and I have no doubt there are many other new avenues I haven’t imagined.

Taking into account the ongoing evolution of the professions — including the need for new modes of education; high standards of performance and conduct; effective technical, business, and public communication; and desires for a more sustainable future —what do you think the chemical engineering profession will look like 25 years from now?

Chemical engineers, indeed all engineers, will need to work together to meet our needs across all sectors. Much of this will need to be built into our training, and we are already seeing that happen through innovative approaches in education, research collaborations, and in entrepreneurship. This gives me great optimism. The future is uncertain, but with the tremendous interdisciplinary work that chemical engineers already do, we can be leaders in tackling the challenges for the next generation.

AIChE's 110 Year Celebration

Celebrate AIChE's 110-year anniversary. Attend this Annual Meeting session, focusing on the future of chemical engineering through the eyes of thought leaders from industry, academia, and national laboratories.

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