By Melanie Appleby
Four years ago, you would have trouble finding a news source that did not have a headline detailing global warming or green technologies. Since then, it seems that people have lost interest in the subject simply because it is not as prevalent in the news. But don’t be fooled by the lack of coverage. Everyone from politicians and scientists to ordinary people are still searching for ways to brighten our future. In fact, the Department of Energy (DOE) is working harder than you may have thought toward finding sustainable alternatives to the objects that give off negative externalities to the environment—fossil fuels, coal, cars, factories and so on.
Steven Chu: How He Founded ARPA-E
Meet Steven Chu. He is the U.S. secretary of energy and a world-renowned physicist, having won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1997. He teaches at elite institutions, Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley, and was instrumental in the founding of a government agency formed by the DOE during the Bush administration and modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA.
The agency he formed is the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy or ARPA-E. Chu’s influence on the agency has been profound. Instead of the DOE managing government-funded labs, as they have in the past, Chu has decided to turn the DOE into what seems like a large, green venture capital firm to invest in high-risk technology projects that look to replace our current technologies with “cleaner” ones.
The DOE awards a certain amount of grants to those projects picked out by a qualified team of professors, scientists and venture capitalists. But it wasn’t the formation of this agency that solicited these grants, it was the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed in 2009 under President Barack Obama. Hidden in the $800 billion stimulus plan was a $400 million allocation to ARPA-E. The popularity of the idea was astounding, with 3,700 applications for the first 37 grants.
Electrofuels: Renewable Energy Source
ARPA-E is not looking to fund research that improves existing technologies. They are, instead, interested in far more advanced and futuristic projects. For example, as a way to solve the energy problem, the super team over at ARPA-E came up with an innovative solution tagged “electrofuels.” These fuels are a potential renewable energy source based upon genetically re-engineered microbes—or microscopic organism—that absorb energy without photosynthesis. This new method of creating liquid transportation fuels is thought to be up to 10 times more efficient than existing biofuels, which all implement photosynthesis in the production method, a highly inefficient natural process. It is an entirely new idea that we now know works.
However, the problem herein rests in the implementation of such a technology. In addition to pondering the scientific merits of potential projects, the ARPA-E team must think about the cost and benefits that each technology would have to society and how marketable it would be. “Now we know it works. We just don’t know if it matters,” someone associated with ARPA-E told Michael Grunwald, the author of “The New New Deal,” a book detailing the history of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. After all, the ability of a technology to be useful to society is what makes or breaks most of the projects funded through ARPA-E.
Wave Technology: Using Ocean Current to Produce Power
As is expected from the nature of the venture capital business, there are only going to be a few successes buried in a lot of failures. One such success is the grant given to Ocean Power Technologies to create a wave-energy generator, which is due to be dropped into the ocean outside of Reedsport, Ore., in October. Ten of these generators are expected to power 1,000 homes on the mainland through its grid connection.
Wave technology is the newest of the viable renewable energies and it’s new enough that even the fundamental idea of how to transfer the energy of a wave to a wire is still being debated and experimented with. Ocean Power Technologies uses buoys anchored to the ocean floor. The bobbing up and down of the buoys is converted into the power of an electrical generator and then is fed through an underwater wire to the mainland. It is not known what the long-term viability of this technology will be, but these are exactly the types of projects that ARPA-E hopes will succeed.
The jump in funding provided to ARPA-E in the stimulus bill was critical. In general, the stimulus bill helped to pave the path for several new industries with heavy research and development budgets. Continued funding from the DOE will continue to be a driving force of ARPA-E.
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