ARPA-E Funds 37 Projects--Some Lofty, Some Not So Much

Transformational Energy Agency Funds A Couple of Quotidian Ideas

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Things are moving fast at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). After languishing for a year and a half after President Bush signed it into law, and then for another half year after being funded by the Obama administration, the agency is finally picking up steam: Within a short two-month period, it got its first director and announced the 37 founding projects that will likely determine its future mission.

On Monday, ARPA-E announced that it had finaly culled those 37 projects from a herd of 3500 applications submitted over the summer in response to a funding it announced in April. (The task of sifting through those was heroic, and made all the more so by the fact that ARPA-E had no actual staff. House Science & Technology staffer Chris King told me that no one was comfortable making staffing decisions before ARPA-E got an actual director. But Energy Secretary Steven Chu was taking his time deciding who would head up his agency. ARPA-E was definitely Chu’s baby--back when he was just a Nobel-prize winning physicist, he co-authored a report called “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” that raised the alarms about the sorry state of innovation in the United States and recommended DOE ape the Defense Department with a high-risk agency that focuses exclusively on pie in the sky technologies that no private company would dare fund by itself.)

The agency is disseminating $151 million to a selection that includes the usual suspects (behemoths like MIT, Argonne National Labs, and GM) and some small, lesser-known entities like Momentive Performance Materials and NanOasis Technologies, Inc. Because these are the first of ARPA-E’s projects, they are likely to determine the agency’s future, in ways that are tangible and intangible. It’s already apparent that the funding choices will have an effect on the categories of research ARPA-E funds.

The categories under which ARPA-E classified the newly funded projects on its web site--Energy Storage, Biomass Energy, Carbon Capture, Renewable Power, Direct Solar Fuels, Building Efficiency, Waste Heat Capture, Vehicle Technologies, Water, and Conventional Energy--give some hints to how the agency will categorize its future research. The new director, Arun Majumdar, is particularly interested in energy efficiency research and alternative energy storage approaches.

“What happens in an agency in the initial year or two sets the culture in that agency for decades to come,” David Goldston told Spectrum two years ago, when ARPA-E was still inflicting labor pains on Congress. Goldston, a former House Science & Technology Committee Staff Director, had protested what he saw as the agency's hurried creation in a Nature magazine editorial. Goldston continues to pop up in the news, most recently in Businessweek, worrying that ARPA-E’s mission had become “too unfocused—and that congressional pressure to get fast results may steer it away from the most daring research.”

Well, it turns out he might have a point.

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.

But then delve deeper into the 37 projects and you find some less inspiring technology. For example, consider the $4,992,651 bequeathed to Stanford University for its "sensors, software, and controls to track and improve energy use patterns." By no means do I think that Stanford should not be advancing this important area of research, but to borrow a phrase from Amy Poehler and Seth Myers: Really? Really, ARPA-E, this is transformational research? I thought transformational means “Google is not already working on it.” (the company's philanthropic arm) has created an online application called PowerMeter that can help you track your energy usage if you have a Smart Meter. Dean Kamen has developed a granular energy usage tracking system called the Teletrol System that will also do that for you. 

Or consider GM’s Lightweight Thermal Energy Recovery System, which uses an energy recovery device that promises to “increase fuel efficency by as much as 10 percent.” I’m not an expert in the field of fuel efficiency, but 10 percent doesn’t make me think “transformational.” Of 3500 submitted applications, only a hair over 1 percent--one lousy percent--was chosen. You’re telling me that in those 3463 proposals, not one promised something more exciting than a 10 percent fuel efficiency increase?


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