Batteries made with chemicals that we mine from rhubarb plants, rather than expensive metals taken out of the earth. Magnets that clip onto electrical lines and reroute electrons. Solar panels that work efficiently even when they get hot or are shaded. These are just a few of the advanced energy research projects in the works that could bring the promise of a future electricity grid that is decentralized, resilient, and less carbon-heavy closer to a reality.
All are projects of ARPA-E, a young federal agency created just five years ago as the U.S. Department of Energy’s analog to DARPA, the military's research agency that funds the development of mind-reading science, cyborgs, and deadly robots. Similarly, ARPA-E's mission is to fund big, risky ideas in energy that might have trouble otherwise getting off the ground because they haven’t been proven to work yet. This year, it had a $280 million annual budget (still small compared to the overall $5 billion budgeted for the Energy Department's Office of Science). It has funded a total 362 projects since its beginning.
"We’re trying to take really crazy ideas ... and we get it from the impossible to the plausible. That’s an important place. Once people think it’s plausible, then they can decide they want to step up and put some money to do a demonstration," says acting director Cheryl Martin.
One of its big focuses has been on developing technologies that will help modernize America’s aging and inefficient electricity grid, making it more reliable and resilient, and helping it incorporate far more renewable sources of energy than it does today. Because, unlike electricity generated at centralized power plants, renewable energy can be unpredictable and widely distributed from difference sources, on rooftops, businesses, and solar farms, its one of the big but unsexy roadblocks to the U.S.'s large-scale shift away from fossil fuels.
"The grid itself and the business models that work within the grid are going to have to change," says Martin. "I think people will have more localized awareness and control over their electricity. Exactly what that looks like—I just don’t know yet."
With three-year, $3 million grants, ARPA-E takes a portfolio approach in several different program areas that bring together companies, researchers, and other government agencies from diverse fields. For example, it is funding researchers at Boston University and Georgia Tech who are developing new algorithms that will calculate more quickly and precisely how to route electricity around the grid and how to respond in a split second when there are signs of a failure. And Smart Wire Grid is a company that is developing magnets that clip on to electrical wires and could help operators actually control the flow of electrons through the system—something they can’t do today, which is one reason why outages tend to spread. Other researchers are working on the long-term problem of reducing the costs of batteries that store energy by finding lower cost materials to use and reducing the amount of material needed.
The rhubarb scientist, who reported his findings in the journal Nature earlier this year, has come up with one of the more interesting results recently. "He discovered that this class of chemicals that they extracted from rhubarb actually works to give you a battery performance. It’s still a lab experiment, but it’s kind of cool to see how these transformational things could again reduce the cost to enable this bigger picture," says Martin. (The rhubarb chemicals could in theory replace expensive metals that go into batteries that store electricity that contribute to their high cost).
Overall, across all of ARPA-E, 91 projects have been completed, and about four have gone on to the stage where they are entering commercial sales. It’s also a rare government agency that is comfortable with acknowledging failure—it has actually cut short funding mid-way for 18 of the 91 projects because they weren’t working as intended, and other projects have pivoted along the way.
Unlike software startups, energy technology homeruns take many years. Often a decade can go by and a technology will still struggle to make it to commercial scale. Martin explains that the biggest success of the young agency so far—which is now the largest funder of this kind of translational energy research—is changing the culture of R&D.
"We’ve taken the idea of taking big chances from being unacceptable to acceptable. Failure is becoming part of the process," Martin says. "And the really big success is that some of this stuff does work ... and it’s challenging people’s ideas about what’s possible. The great thing about innovation is that once you get one thing to happen, lots of other things start to look possible. You see it all the time in sports. When someone breaks the 4:00 mile, all of the sudden a few people break it ... that’s true in science as well."