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ARPA-E Marks the End of Oil with 37 New Energy Grants

ARPA-E will distribute $106 million in funding for 37 transformative energy projects in 17 statesThe timing was pure coincidence but the irony is still crushing: this week, while the fallout was still settling from the Massey coal mine disaster and crews were fighting vainly to stem a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, ARPA-E announced its picks for a new round of transformative energy projects.  ARPA-E, the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy, is the federal agency charged with getting us out of this fossil fuel mess and into more sustainable forms of energy.


In this round of funding, ARPA-E will distribute 37 grants to transformative energy projects in 17 states for a total of $106 million.  The money comes from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  The idea is to invest in sustainable technology that creates new green jobs.  Fossil fuels will be with us for a long time, but the faster we support new energy solutions, the sooner we can marginalize fossil fuels and reduce if not eliminate their devastating environmental and economic impacts.

Sustainable Biofuels from Electricity

ARPA-E has focused this round of funding on three areas.  The first area is biofuels from electricity, and in that area ARPA-E gave a $4 million grant to Harvard Medical School to develop a bacterium that can use renewably sourced electricity to convert carbon dioxide into gasoline.  If this sounds far fetched, it’s not.  Living microorganisms are already being used to generate energy, for example in microbial fuel cells developed by the U.S. Navy.

Batteries for Electrical Energy Storage in Transportation

The acronym for the second area spells BEEST.  Cute, right?  Here ARPA is focusing on low cost energy storage devices that will help push more electric vehicles into the mass market.  In this category MIT received a $5 million grant to develop a semi-solid battery that combines elements of rechargeable batteries and fuel cells, at less than 1/8 the cost of current technology.

“Clean” Coal

The third category is for new carbon capture technologies, and that’s where the whole concept of transformative energy gets a little mushy.  In this category GE Global Research was awarded a $3 million grant for developing a liquid that converts to a powder when exposed to carbon dioxide.  This could lead to a more cost effective method for capturing emissions from coal fired power plants but no matter how exciting the new technology turns out, it will do nothing to prevent the destructive mountaintop coal mining practices that have leveled hundreds (yes, hundreds) of mountains in Appalachia, and it will not address the disaster-waiting-to-happen practice of storing of coal ash slurry from power plants in massive open lakes, one recent example being the coal ash spill in Tennessee.  Whether this technology turns out to be truly transformative or simply enabling remains to be seen.

Image: Oil drums by XcBiker on

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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