NEW YORK Nanotubes that use sunlight to produce fuel, liquid metal batteries, and synthetic molecules to capture carbon dioxide may become realities under Arun Majumdar's push to revolutionize the U.S. Energy Department.
Majumdar is director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), the Department of Energy's newest unit, created to invest in the development of high risk, high pay-off technologies.
Targeting innovations from battery technology to carbon capture and electricity storage, ARPA-E has reached out to scientists, universities and companies around the country to help move their projects from laboratory to market place.
"We should call them potential game changers," Majumdar said in an interview.
Rising energy prices and the potential for tighter constraints on emissions of carbon from burning fossil fuels have triggered a wave of energy research projects over the past decade.
But while energy sources such as biofuels, wind power and solar energy have made inroads into the mainstream, their contributions to energy supply remain modest, and all are dependent on government subsidies to make them economically viable.
ARPA-E was announced in 2007 and modeled after DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency credited with creating the Internet.
ARPA-E got off the ground last year when it received $400 million in funding under the U.S. Recovery Act.
ARPA-E's staff is small, with a dozen government scientists and tech sector developers.
About 3,200 response poured in after its first call for proposals, and the agency awarded $151 million to 'an early harvest' of ideas, Majumdar said.
"The first round was, 'let's see what's out there,'" he said. "Twenty to 25 percent did not satisfy the laws of science or nature." Two more rounds of funding will further narrow the field.
BACKING THE BEEST
Majumdar said ARPA-E's goal was to have an impact on society through ground-breaking advances on the scale of the polio vaccine and the airplane.
"There were non-linear inventions that led to inflection points," he said. "We need to do this very quickly."
Battery technology is a major focus of the unit's BEEST program, or Batteries for Electrical Energy Storage in Transportation.
BEEST is funding development of technologies such as metal-air ionic liquid batteries, which could be far more efficient and less costly to use in cars than current lithium ion batteries.
"The BEEST program has been designed to leap-frog over today's technology," Majumdar said.
Another focus for batteries is grid-scale power storage equipment such as all-liquid metal technology that would help distribute wind and solar energy. The technology would help overcome a major stumbling block to adoption of wind and solar power.
A wide slate of other projects target biofuels and development of cellulosic technologies that could lead the transportation industry away from corn-based ethanol.
Other projects involve using nanotubes to harness sunlight that would be used to mix carbon dioxide and water to produce fuel.
Many of these projects may be long shots, and Majumdar said ARPA-E recognizes they may not all be successful.
"We tell people you will fail at some point. Fail quickly, and learn from it," he said.
"But if one of these works out, it could potentially change the ballgame."
(Reporting by Matt Daily)