The Breakthroughs the DARPA of Energy Is Betting On

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The Department of Energy's high-risk, high-reward branch modeled on the military's famed DARPA released its latest 43 grantees this week. 

Most of the Advanced Research Project Agency - Energy grants are small, but the direction the money is flowing gives us a pretty indication of where the nation's leading scientific lights think technological breatkthroughs are necessary -- and may come. 

ARPA-E is a creation of the Obama administration. It provides a way for research to get done outside the traditional national laboratory structure. Almost all of those labs like Argonne and Los Alamos are holdovers from the Atomic Energy Agency. For decades, renewable energy advocates have argued that their projects never received the institutional backing they needed to succeed from the lab managers, who often were trained as nuclear scientists. (Some of this history is detailed in a surprisingly interesting compendium edited by Donald Beattie, History and Overview of Solar Heat Technologies.) The new agency awards money straight to researchers in universities or companies, and may be the biggest institutional invention of DOE chief  and Bell Labs-alum Steven Chu's tenure. 

For this round of grants, ARPA-E focused on three areas, which are described below (with my translations). The full list of grant winners is available. 

  • Grid-Scale Rampable Intermittent Dispatchable Storage. It's no secret that the wind doesn't always blow or the sun always shine. While renewable technologies are great for shaving how much electricity people use at peak times, some way to store solar or wind generated electricity will be necessary for it to compete as "baseload" power with coal and nuclear. The truth is, for now, some of the best storage is still lead-acid batteries, a century-old technology that hasn't gotten many upgrades since in the 1970s.So, ARPA-E is looking for new solutions to this problem, and big ones. They want to be able to store and dispatch energy at the gigawatt scale -- that's the size of a nuclear reactor, not a laptop or car. The biggest recipient in this area was ABB Inc, which got $4.4 million to work on a novel system in which electricity would be stored in the magnetic field of a coiled wire.
  • Agile Delivery of Electrical Power Technology. Electricity sent through the grid goes through all kinds of conversions and switches, step-ups and step-downs. The main way to send power long-distances is to raise its voltage, which is akin to increasing its "pressure" -- imagine sticking your thumb over half a garden hose's opening, and then you have to lower it again close to the point of use. Similar problems crop up within homes, too, as electric cars and gadgets make the electricity they receive into energy they can use. All those conversions cut down on the efficiency of our electric system, so this area of DOE interest aims to develop better switches and converters. The big winner here was HRL Laboratories, which is developing a better switch for enabling electric car chargers to hook up with the grid. They got more than $5 million.
  • Building Energy Efficiency Through Innovative Thermodevices. This ARPA-E interest area is deceptively simple. They aim solely to find "new approaches and technologies for cooling buildings." While heating technologies can be remarkably efficient, the same is not true of cooling, and refrigerants are kind of nasty chemicals with serious potential as greenhouse gases. The DOE's biggest grant in this area went to the Advanced Materials Group, which is working with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Texas A&M is working on a new membrane to dehumidify moist air. If the process works, it would dramatically increasing the efficiency of air conditioning. The DOE bet $3.2 million it might. 

If the individual tasks that ARPA-E chose seem small, let that serve as a reminder about how many places in our nation's energy system need some work after decades without innovation. There is room for improvement nearly everywhere scientist and engineers look.

Image: A transformer. Credit: Vaxomatic/flickr.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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