ARPA-E Innovation Summit 2012 Provides a Glimpse of America’s Green Energy Future to Come

The ARPA-E Innovation Summit of 2012 closed to great fanfare this past Wednesday. A number of leading politicians, government officials, philanthropists, venture capitalists, and scientists gathered at the Gaylord Convention Center in the National Harbor, just outside of Washington DC, to see the future energy landscape of the United States and the world. The vision and inspiration provided by the various represented groups paint a bright energy future where environmental concerns and energy demands are not mutually exclusive.

ARPA-E, Advanced Research Projects Administration in Energy, was signed into law by President Bush on the 9th of August 2007 as a part of a comprehensive America COMPETES Act, which was prepared in direct response to the concerns outlined in the Rising Above the Gathering Storm report of the National Academies. The agency received a large portion of its initial funding from American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, signed into law by President Obama on April 27, 2009. As such, it is a rare example of the bi-partisan understanding for the need to develop and market American innovation and technologies.

According to the official web-site, “ARPA-E focuses exclusively on high risk, high payoff concepts - technologies promising genuine transformation in the ways we generate, store and utilize energy. While the DOE invests heavily in conventional energy research, ARPA-E is not intended to augment these efforts. If just a fraction of the projects funded by ARPA-E are successful in reaching the marketplace, the U.S. will benefit greatly by creating new industries and jobs, making energy technologies substantially more cost-saving and profitable, and accelerating the timeframe for achieving energy and climate goals.”

A number of politicians, representatives of the business community, and philanthropists spoke before a gathering of 3000 on the importance of such innovation. Bill Gates spoke of his involvement in nuclear energy start-ups where the cycle of sourcing – using – disposing of nuclear material is being completed; President Bill Clinton spoke of his involvement in increasing building efficiencies around the country; and various business leaders touted their reasons for why tech development is necessary, covering the spectrum from jobs and growth in sustainable manufacturing to utilization of armed conflict to secure oil.

Four grantees were highlighted at the Summit:

Sheetak Inc. (www.sheetak.com) proposes to develop a new thermoelectric material system known as Non-Equilibrium Asymmetric Thermoelectric (NEAT), which can achieve high performance in solid-state refrigeration compressors. Sheetak plans to improve refrigeration engine efficiency to surpass that of current compressor systems using its understanding of thermoelectric behavior, and electrical and thermal conductivity. Compared to a traditional compressor system with an evaporator, condenser and expansion valve, Sheetak’s product will be a complete system that produces cold air without using fluids with global warming potential, and with decreased energy demands.

OPX Biotechnologies, Inc. (www.opxbiotechnologies.com) will develop and optimize a unique, engineered microorganism that produces a biodieselequivalent fuel from renewable hydrogen and carbon dioxide, at costs of less than $2.50 per gallon. Water will be the primary byproduct. The project will draw on OPX’s proprietary genomics technology and NREL’s improved microorganisms for hydrogen utilization and carbon fixation for rapid metabolic engineering. The team will investigate the catalytic conversion of this microbial biodiesel into additional fuel molecules, most importantly jet fuel.

CUNY Energy Institute (www.cuny.edu/energy) in partnership with industry, will develop and construct a water-based flow-assisted battery for grid-scale energy storage. This novel battery starts with the same low cost materials found in disposable consumer-grade alkaline batteries, namely zinc and manganese dioxide, and then transforms the chemistry into a long-lasting, fully-rechargeable system. CUNY has initially demonstrated a zinc and nickel oxide battery that proves the basic science behind the concept of flow-assist for enabling zinc to repeatedly store electrical energy. In this project, the team will push this approach in a new direction by replacing nickel with reversible electrodes by leveraging key material innovations. The result of this effort will be a 25 kilowatt rechargeable system that lasts for 5,000 cycles, costs under $100 per kilowatt hour, and shows strong potential for scaling to megawatt-hour levels in grid-scale electric energy storage applications.

Foro Energy (www.foroenergy.com) Geothermal energy is a potentially vast source of carbon-free electricity generation in the U.S. To date, the use of geothermal energy has been hindered by the difficulty in penetrating ultra-hard crystalline basement rocks. Conventional drill bits penetrate these rocks slowly and wear down quickly. As a result, drilling is slow and expensive. Foro Energy will use ARPA-E funding to develop a thermal-mechanical drilling technology that will increase drilling rates up to 10-fold relative to conventional drilling technologies. This increase in drilling efficiency will result in a significant reduction in drilling costs. If successful, this project could enable the widespread use of geothermal energy and accelerate the shift to renewable energy sources.

All of these technologies will create American jobs and foster a dawn of a new American Century through continued innovation, exploration, and development. It is a proven formula that builds confidence in the ability of government, venture capital, academia, and industry to unite in an effort to find solutions to our problems and in doing so determining our destiny.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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