The U.S. pioneered many of the clean energy technologies used today around the world. But five years ago, when an elite group of scientists warned America was falling behind foreign competitors, Congress responded by creating the Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA-E, to help fund the development of breakthrough energy technologies.
ARPA-E Director Arun Majumdar discusses the energy challenges America faces from other countries and how the U.S. can “out-innovate” its competitors to spur new economic growth.
Since his agency first secured funding in 2009, Majumdar has relished spending taxpayers’ money to make America first in the global race to clean, reliable, affordable energy. He takes the message to military forums and gatherings of college students. His boss, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, and other big energy leaders like former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pick it up and pass it on.
The agency is modeled after the Defense Department’s decades’ old DARPA, credited with producing innovations we take for granted today, like the Internet and GPS. It’s that innovative spirit Majumdar hopes to tap.
Majumdar says the United States always had the history of pioneers, of entrepreneurs, of trying something and not being afraid of failure. As the country that first sent people to the Moon, and pioneered the transistor, the integrated circuit and the Internet, he can’t understand why the U.S. is behind in energy.
This week, the agency announced $156 million in grants to speed the development of new, cutting-edge energy technologies. Overall, in four rounds of funding, 181 ventures have received grants of $550,000 to $9 million.
He’s not ready to say which ones will be the big game changers, but he does admit an exciting venture is the next generation of batteries. They’re expected to be more powerful, lighter, and even cheaper than what we use now.
Other projects focus on cheaper, more efficient semiconductors for hybrid and electric vehicles and growing of biodiesel. One company found a new way to harness wind energy. And another thinks it’s found a way to store it through compressed air in underground salt caverns. When electricity is needed, the air expands through a generator, and here’s the key — without burning fuel.
Majumdar says energy technologies are, in his words, “the biggest business opportunity out there.” But it’s an expensive one and getting money from Congress hasn’t been easy. ARPA-E asked for $300 million in funding for 2011. Congress approved a little more than half that — $180 million.
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