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Crowd-Sourced Thermostats, Modular Fusion Reactors, and Other Ideas From ARPA-E Future Energy Pitching Session

Entrepreneurs describe their bold (and sometimes crazy) energy projects

4 min read
Crowd-Sourced Thermostats, Modular Fusion Reactors, and Other Ideas From ARPA-E Future Energy Pitching Session
Photo: Helion Energy

Early this week at the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit in Washington, D.C., a group of entrepreneurs, researchers, and investors gathered for a session that was equal parts innovative, smart, optimistic, and downright crazy. At the ARPA-E Future Energy Pitching Session, eight early-stage start-ups have three minutes—strictly enforced—to sell a panel of venture capitalists on their companies. The venture folks ask a few questions and then offer advice, and generally knock the excited presenters down a peg or two.

At last year's summit, the pitches included rotation-free wind power, uranium molten-salt nuclear reactors, and a device designed to pull energy out of the air thanks to ambient temperature changes. Some of these ideas are very high-risk, and potentially very high-reward; perfect for venture capital, and sometimes, for ARPA-E itself to throw in some money.

"The fire exits are on your lefthand side, should you need them," began the moderator. Indeed they are; off we go with some of the best ideas:

Onboard Dynamics: Refuel any vehicle for $1 per gallon from any natural gas line

Natural gas is now being produced in huge volumes in various parts of the United States, and proponents say it could be an extremely cheap alternative to oil-based gasoline. But one major hurdle is infrastructure: There are less than a thousand compressed natural gas (CNG) refueling stations around the United States right now. Onboard Dynamics wants to eliminate the need for a lot of that infrastructure by putting the gas compressor on to vehicles themselves.

By letting the car or truck do the compressing, we wouldn't need any filling stations at all. "Sixty million homes and businesses could become natural gas refueling stations," said presenter and CEO Rita Hansen. The idea is to hook into any low-pressure gas source and use one or two of an engine's cylinders as a natural gas compressor, when the car is not moving. The remaining engine cylinders run to power that compression and to provide cooling. When refueling is finished and the car needs to actually move again, all engine cylinders run as normal.

The company has its first customer, Deschutes County in Oregon, but the investors on the panel warned how hard it would be to, essentially, convince car part manufacturers to change everything that they do overnight. The road is long and the climb is steep when it comes to changing our primary vehicle fuel source.

CrowdComfort: People-sourced building control

Do you work in an office? Someone is always cold, right? Or hot. Or somehow uncomfortable. And either everyone keeps changing the thermostat to suit their own needs or complaints get sent to maintenance, who maybe after a few months might make a change. In the meantime, someone is paying for energy to cool or heat a building to points that no one seems happy about. Time to use those angry crowds to fix that.

"We sought to empower people with their smartphones to create the world's first crowd-sourced thermostat," said Eric Graham, the company's CEO. It's actually a straightforward idea: I'm cold, so I tap a button on my phone saying so. Over my whole floor, maybe a few people say they're extremely cold, a few say they're somewhat cold, and so on, and a software-based recommendation engine generates a number for how the building should actually be heated. This can be done in very basic fashion, where a manager turns a knob based on the generated number, or the software can integrate with larger buildings to more automatically affect the building's climate. It wouldn't cost all that much to install or to run, according to Graham, and there is potential for energy savings if unnecessary heating and cooling can be avoided.

The problem, say the money guys, lies primarily in that very simplicity. Can't anyone do this? The company has a few patents, but it isn't much of a stretch to imagine multiple ways into this idea, especially now that Internet-connected thermostats, like the Nest, are available. The really promising part of it, though, is when you extend the idea past just temperature. If thousands of people in really big buildings start telling an app all about their current experience: temperature, leaks, dirty bathrooms, or even letting an app just track where they walk and which staircases or elevators they take, the data might start to point the way toward much smarter—and energy efficient—buildings.

Helion Energy: Modular fusion reactors within reach?

It always comes back to fusion. The unicorn of all energy sources, it has been 20 years away since work on the idea began. After decades of lackluster progress, billions still get poured into the idea, and it still remains just off the horizon. Unless you ask Helion Energy, that is.

This company says they can have a 50-MW fusion nuclear reactor actually online and producing power by 2019. That is five years from now, if you are counting at home. They use a technique called pulsed magneto-inertial fusion, which CEO David Kirtley said lies somewhere between the commonly attempted methods of magnetic fusion and laser fusion (their prototype is pictured above). The details on how exactly it works seem a bit thin, but there's a "simple" five-step process described here. Let's just agree that the odds of this being as perfect and planet-saving as the company suggests are . . . slim.

The upsides to it actually working are obvious: you can use seawater to generate fuel, no weapons-grade material is produced as with fission reactors, and there is no possibility of meltdown. But, as Kirtley acknowledged, "it still has the word 'nuclear' in front of it." That means a steep regulatory climb, not to mention a rightfully skeptical public.

"Being in fusion, you've got this credibility issue," said Andrew Garman, of New Venture Partners, during the session. "Is this really going to be ready in 2019 for a plant? Or is it more like 2099?"

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