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ARPA-E - are its energy projects crazy or revolutionary?

The Department of Energy's ARPA-E is funding projects it hopes will revolutionize the way Americans produce and use energy.

By Moises Velasquez-Manoff / November 2, 2009

Research is being conducted on whether it's possible to produce a flow of gasoline directly from sunlight and CO2 using a symbiotic system of two organisms.

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Last week, the US Department of Energy announced a series of new energy-efficiency projects that could, according to the press release, "fundamentally change the way we use and produce energy."

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The projects are, in the words of one observer, so crazy they may actually work.

If just one is successful, it could transform society, says another.

They're talking about the recently formed Advanced Research Projects Agency — ARPA-E for short – which awarded $151 million in grants to 37 projects in 17 states. Of the major recipients, small businesses make up 43 percent, educational institutions 35 percent, and large corporations 19 percent.

In its own words, "ARPA-E's mission is to develop nimble, creative and inventive approaches to transform the global energy landscape while advancing America's technology leadership."

ARPA-E is modeled on the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), the agency that helped develop technologies like the stealth fighter, the M16 assault rifle, and the Internet, among other transformative ideas.

Reactions to ARPA-E's announcement have been largely positive, but a few have voiced concerns. Business Week's Elise Craig writes about the program's broad focus:

"Former House Science & Technology Committee Staff Director David Goldston worries that its mission is too unfocused — and that congressional pressure to get fast results may steer it away from the most daring research. The key will be structuring the program to buck the typical government research culture by rewarding risk-taking."

Sally Adee at ieee Spectrum observes: "Some of the technologies that received funding are true to the pie-in-the-sky, mad science aspirations of a real ARPA: For example, a University of Minnesota project uses two symbiotic organisms to create gasoline directly from sunlight and CO2. That is outright bananas. And, as the saying goes, it’s so crazy that it might just work."

Kevin Bullis of MIT's Technology Review comments on the importance of having expert reviewers with a very specific skill set looking at project proposals, which may not have occurred. "Ideally you'd have people who are both the very best scientists in their fields and who have had extensive experience in industry," he writes. "The problem is that the ARPA-E process, by necessity, disqualified some of the very best potential reviewers."

Bullis goes on to explain that many of the most brilliant academics found their own companies — companies that may compete with proposed projects. As a result — and rightly so, he says — people connected with competing companies were prohibited from participating in the ARPA-E review process.

Unfortunately, that may mean that many meritorious projects "slipped through the cracks," he says, "while some companies that have almost no chance of success may have received money. "

Nevertheless, Bullis is "excited" about the program.

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