2011-11-01

This Genius Energy Agency Will Change American Power

ARPA-E is modeled after DARPA and financing one groundbreaking energy innovation after another. Arun Majumdar, the agency’s director, talks about a few of the projects it’s funding, from biofuels grown on electrodes to air conditioners that crush current efficiency standards.

Don’t be fooled by the clip art photos of wind turbines on its website, ARPA-E—a project from the Department of Energy designed to spur clean power innovations—isn’t going to be funding just another solar company. Modeled after DARPA, the genius-stacked and freewheeling Defense Department think tank responsible for the Internet and stealth technology, ARPA-E’s mission is to get America off foreign oil and make sure the U.S. is a world leader in clean technology. And they want to do it all while helping bring companies to market, not leaving them obligated to the government for funds.

The agency works by accepting applications for projects, and then offering funding and helping facilitate partnerships between scientists, investors, and entrepreneurs. Two years into the project, ARPA-E (that’s the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy) has seen successes and some failures, but they’re still pushing forward with groundbreaking new energy proposals, including making oil from electricity and revamping your old, energy-sucking air conditioner.

We spoke to Arun Majumdar, the agency’s director, and Cheryl Martin, the deputy director for commercialization, about where ARPA-E’s projects are, why its work is important, and how it’s planning to disrupt the energy landscape.

Co.Exist: It’s a common argument right now: American companies and the U.S. government aren’t investing enough on R&D while other countries pass us by. How do you feel about that argument generally? And what’s ARPA-E’s role in fixing that?

Arun Majumdar: Certainly there’s a huge capacity to innovate. By far, we have the best ecosystem in the world for the foundation in science and engineering. We have some of the best minds out here. So I think we can definitely, we have innovated in info technology, in biotechnology, and so on. We just haven’t done enough in the energy sector.

Our job is to tap into this American ethos of being a pioneer and innovate in clean energy technology. And have them compete with their peers and come up with technology solutions that are game changers. That’s our goal. And so we’re trying to get the best minds—the best computer scientists, the best biologists, the best material scientists or engineers from other fields—to say: "Lets put our mind on clean energy now."

So, what stage are you at right now with most of the projects?

We started only two years ago. Some of the projects are just ending now. Some of them have been successful. They’ve met the milestone. They’ve gone on and gotten a lot of funding from the private sector, which is a big deal. In this tough economic climate, some of them are leveraging our dollars 10 to 1, some 5 to 1. Some of them are not quite working out. That’s part of the game. In fact, some of them we’re in the process of terminating and putting the money where it actually works.

Speaking of the failures: The last few months have been bad for clean energy in the media. How does that affect you and how you’re thinking about your work?

These things happen. We need to take the long view of this. If you look at what happened in the moon mission, President Kennedy said in 1962, "We’re going to land on the moon and come back safely within this decade." What happened to Apollo 1? It caught fire. Not losing money; we lost three lives. Three lives. These are jewels of this nation. We lost them. Did we say "We’re going to wrap up the Apollo movement?" No. We analyzed it, we understood, innovated, went back, and we landed a man on the moon. That’s what we need to do.

What are some of the innovations that we’re going to see result from ARPA-E’s work?

Converting electricity to oil. Who would think? We think about biofiuels as sunlight to plants to oil. How about taking electricity from a nuclear plant and making oil? People thought it was impossible to do except that teams that we fund have found some ways of using microbes, bugs that don’t need sunlight. But they live on electrodes and they can take the electrons and make oil. People thought it was impossible but it can be done.

Another project is air conditioning. Air conditioners have not changed much since the time of Carrier. It was 1928 when he made the first air conditioner. They’re fundamentally the same. We’ve looked at that and said that air conditioner today uses about 10 times more energy than the theoretical limit. If you do incremental stuff, you’ll get to that, 9.5. We said, you know what? Lets divide this gap in half, and say go for it. And the program is called BEETIT. And people are actually beating it.

If you look at a humid place, when you cool the air, there are two loads. One is taking the moisture out of the air. The other is just cooling down the air. And what we do with air conditioners is just cool the heck out of the air. You cool it down so much that you take the moisture out, down to 2 degrees Celsius. But we don’t need that kind of cooling. You do that to take the moisture out and then you heat it again to room temperature. It’s crazy! You’re cooling and heating and cooling it. You’re wasting energy both ways! There are a whole bunch of groups that are now competing with each other and they’re developing these membranes that they can suck out the water from the air before you cool it. Let the dry air go through and cool the dry air. Boom! Your energy consumption goes down by 50% or more.

If you go from high voltage transmission, 765 kilovolts to your home outlet’s 110 volts, you need some way to change the voltage. They’re called transformers. We buy most of them from overseas; we don’t make them anymore. And it’s the same technology that Tesla invented in the late 1800s. It hasn’t changed much. It weighs about 10,000 lbs. So we need a crane to install it. So we have about 15 groups now looking at using semiconductors. So that 10,000 lbs. I was talking about today can be 100 lbs. in the future. That can fit into a suitcase. You don’t need the crane. You can take it in a suitcase and install it.

What’s the lowest-hanging fruit for energy saving and energy innovation?

Cheryl Martin: I think making too many predictions would look foolish. There are all these white spaces in the field that we ought to be playing in, and doing that well and efficiently is the best service we can do.

That’s kind of been the approach. How do we take some chances, put it out into the markets, and go and reinform that white space. As you change what’s possible, you change your view of what white spaces you need to be changing. And I think that’s a really interesting way of thinking of whatever we’re trying to do. Both change what’s possible and it changes what else needs to be invented.

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