The first round of federal ARPA-E funding for future energy kick-started a stunning range of 37 different projects last year, from fuel-secreting bacteria to liquid batteries and a way to create solar energy by mimicking photosynthesis. Now the agency has launched a new round that narrows the target down to just three carefully defined areas.
ARPA-E is the federal agency created by Congress in 2007 to propel the U.S. into a new energy future, whereupon the previous administration promptly allowed it to languish. That was then, this is now: breathing life into ARPA-E has been a top priority of the Obama administration. To introduce the new round of funding ARPA-E has called for the U.S. to move away from fossil fuels and “change course with fierce urgency,” so let’s take a look at how that goal dovetails with the new target areas.
Advanced Carbon Capture
One top ARPA-E priority is the development of new technologies to capture carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants. That’s not a particularly transformational concept for the residents of rural West Virginia and other low income regions that are literally being blown to pieces by mountaintop coal mining operations. Until there is intense competition from solar power and other renewable forms of energy, new technology that enables so-called “clean” coal will simply serve as an enabler for destructive mining practices to continue, along with related issues such as coal ash disposal. To complete the sustainability equation, coal would not only have to be made into a carbon neutral fuel, it would also have to become marginalized as a fuel, for use only in limited quantities that can be harvested in a less destructive manner.
Batteries and Fuels of the Future
The other two areas of ARPA-E focus are new battery technologies that provide ultra high energy density at a low cost for use in hybrid electric vehicles and electric vehicles, and high efficiency liquid electrofuels that use microorganisms to extract energy form readily available sources such as hydrogen. As with carbon capture, the transformational equation is incomplete in these areas, too. Emissions or not, with a growing global population and enrichment of the developing countries there will be more cars in the world, and consequently more roads, bridges, tunnels, expansion, and destructive sprawl.
ARPA-E and the Big Picture
When it comes to global warming, ARPA-E’s sense of urgency could hardly be stated more clearly. As the agency’s director Arun Majumdar puts it, “business as usual is not an option.” However that may be, revolutionary new energy technologies are just one piece of a larger puzzle that needs to include promoting solar and other forms of sustainable energy over fossil fuels, and that promotes mass transit, rail freight, and urban planning strategies in robust competition with passenger cars and trucks.
Image: Rocket launch courtesy of NASA.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.