This month, the ACR Journal interviewed Dr Adrienne Little, Fellow at the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (part of the U.S. Department of Energy) about her career and insights into the diverse world of cooling and heating.
Education: Where did you study and what course,diploma or degree did you gain?
B.S. Mechanical Engineering – University of California at Berkeley
M.S. and Ph.D. Mechanical Engineering – Georgia Institute of Technology
Who do you work for and where do you work?
We focus on transformational energy projects that can be meaningfully advanced with a small investment over a defined period of time. ARPA-E empowers America's energy researchers with funding, technical assistance, and market readiness. ARPA-E Program Directors and Fellows serve for limited terms to ensure a constant infusion of fresh thinking and new perspectives.
1000 Independence Ave. SW
Washington, DC 20585
What attracted you to the industry?
My professional aspirations have always been driven by a desire to make the most difference in the world. Early in my undergraduate education, I identified the need for clean and ubiquitous energy sources to be one of the most challenging problems, and a core issue linked to many problems we see related to poverty, environment, equality, and technological development.
"My professional aspirations have always been driven by a desire to make the most difference in the world."
As it turns out, I was right.
While my Ph.D. focused on the development of ejector waste heat recovery systems to produce cooling, I also had the chance to explore other thermal system areas related to data center cooling, dynamic modeling of supercritical CO2 bottoming cycles for power plants, and concentrated solar thermal power generation, to name a few.
What do you specialise in now? Or, what type of projects do you work on?
Since many forms of innovation seem to occur at the interface between two technical areas that have traditionally been kept apart, I have targeted interesting combinations of different fields with Heat Transfer and Thermodynamics. Some candidate fields I have identified are Manufacturing, Materials, and Active Matter Physics.
As a Fellow at ARPA-E, I am looking for new materials and manufacturing methods, as well as radically different working fluids that can aid in expanding the existing thermal system engineering toolbox. For example, this can range from additively manufacturing heat exchangers out of materials that allow anisotropic conductivity, or using newly developed active fluids to eliminate the need for fluid pumps.
What do you know now about the industry which you wished you had known before?
Typically, systems are designed and constructed to reduce cost and to have easily manageable product lines. Especially during my time at ARPA-E, I have been gradually exposed to different examples of this way of thinking. One cannot simply make a great technology and expect that its technical merits alone will ensure its widespread use.
One must understand how that technology will interface with existing product lines, manufacturing facilities, and markets in order to make a notable impact.
What excites/interests you about the industry and your part in it now?
"I am excited by the fact that there are so many opportunities for innovation."
I am excited by the fact that there are so many opportunities for innovation.
In many ways, the heat exchangers we use today look very similar to the ones we used a century ago. The set of components we get to choose from to design a heat pump have stayed fundamentally the same.
With new advances in manufacturing, biostructuring of materials, and active fluids, we can potentially bring about extraordinary changes in thermal systems the way we have seen extraordinary changes in other technical areas.
What would you say to other women who are considering coming into the ACR industry?
Consider alternate applications. How can you use your skills to help people more effectively? Can you make a low-cost AC unit to harvest water in humid environments where electricity might not be available? Can you imagine a mini cooler that could ship vaccines more effectively? Can you design clothing that would eliminate the need for air conditioning in buildings?
In the end, the most effective people are those who have a wide network, especially outside of their area of expertise. This is because with multiple ideas and more information inside of your head, you can make more interesting and creative connections than other people can. That is the key to innovation. So be curious, ask people questions about their own background, and leverage your own unique background and connections to imagine a new technology.
"In the end, the most effective people are those who have a wide network, especially outside of their area of expertise."
Where do you see your career developing?
In the near future, I will start employment at a major company in Silicon Valley, California. After being in industry for a few years, I hope to become faculty at a university where I can do research, teach, and mentor graduate students, because I enjoy sharing my ideas as much as I enjoy developing them.
What are the challenges of this industry?
Compounding this challenge is consumer acceptance of a new technology. As we move to new refrigerants that are often flammable, toxic, or operate at higher pressures, there are many regulatory challenges that need to be addressed.
Blind development of technologies without consideration for these complexities leads to wasted time and effort. Therefore, the main challenge lies in developing diverse teams in industry that can tackle all parts of the problem at once.
"The main challenge lies in developing diverse teams in industry that can tackle all parts of the problem at once."
What are the benefits of being in your role?
As a Fellow, I am developing an intimate understanding of the work going on at national labs, large and small companies, and university campuses today, such that I know what is going to be published and developed in the next year or two. This gives me the ability to predict where various industries will go in the next three-to-five years, amplifying my ability to be an informed and effective technical leader.
What industry competitions or events have you participated in?
In high school, I participated in FIRST robotics.