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.

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.

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."

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.

This past April, President Barack Obama allotted ARPA-E $400 million in initial funding under the American Recovery and Investment Act. Of the major recipients so far, small businesses make up 43 percent, educational institutions 35 percent, and large corporations 19 percent.

ARPA-E's website lists all 37 projects, which include everything from photovoltaics and biomass energy to renewable energy storage and harvesting waste heat from vehicles. These  four projects are showcased:

1.  "Liquid Metal Grid-Scale Batteries: Created by Professor Don Sadoway, a leading MIT battery scientist, the all-liquid metal battery is based on low cost, domestically available liquid metals with potential to break through the cost barrier required for mass adoption of large scale energy storage as part of the nation's energy grid. If successful, this battery technology could revolutionize the way electricity is used and produced on the grid, enabling round-the-clock power from America's wind and solar power resources, increasing the stability of the grid, and making blackouts a thing of the past. And if deployed at homes, it could allow individual consumers the ability to be part of a future 'smart energy Internet,' where they would have much greater control over their energy usage and delivery."

2.  "Bacteria for Producing Direct Solar Hydrocarbon Biofuels: Researchers at the University of Minnesota have developed a bioreactor that has the potential to produce a flow of gasoline directly from sunlight and CO2 using a symbiotic system of two organisms. First, a photosynthetic organism directly captures solar radiation and uses it to convert carbon dioxide to sugars. In the same area, another organism converts the sugars to gasoline and diesel transportation fuels. This development has the potential to greatly increase domestic production of clean fuel for our vehicles and end our reliance on foreign oil."

3.  "CO2 Capture using Artificial Enzymes: Today's funding will support an effort by the United Technologies Research Center to develop new synthetic enzymes that could make it easier and more affordable to capture carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and factories. If successful, the effort would mean a much lower energy requirement for industrial carbon capture and significantly lower capital costs to get carbon capture systems up and running. Success of this project could substantially lower the cost of carbon capture relative to current, state-of-the-art amine and ammonia based processes. This would represent a major breakthrough that could make it affordable to capture the carbon dioxide emissions from coal and natural gas power plants around the world."

4.  "Low Cost Crystals for LED Lighting: Developed by Momentive Performance Materials, this proposal for novel crystal growth technology could dramatically lower the cost of developing light emitting diodes (LEDs), which are 30 times more efficient than incandescent bulbs and four times more efficient than compact fluorescents. This higher quality, low-cost material would offer significant breakthroughs in lowering costs of finished LED lighting, accelerating mass market use, and dramatically decreasing U.S. lighting energy usage. Lighting accounts for 14 percent of U.S. electricity use."

As Bullis says, "Maybe they'll all fail. But if even one succeeds, it could transform society."

Editor’s note: For more articles about the environment, see the Monitor’s main environment page, which offers information on many environment topics. Also, check out our Bright Green blog archive and our RSS feed.

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