ARPA-E seeks to change future energy technologies

By Dorothy Ramienski
Internet Editor
Federal News Radio

If you’ve heard of DARPA, the research arm of the Department of Defense, you know that it was instrumental in innovating world-changing technologies, such as the Internet.

Now, there’s ARPA-E — the Advanced Research Project Agency – Energy. It’s a brand new part of the Department of Energy, and the Obama Administration is hoping it will facilitate the pioneering of life-changing energy technologies for the 21st century.

Dr. Arun Majumdar is director at ARPA-E and told Federal News Radio that he’s excited to get to work.

“I’m having a blast. This is amazing. It’s a brand new organization within the Department of Energy [and] this is one of the top priorities for the Secretary . . . and has tremendous support from the administration. I’m really enjoying my interactions with Congress [too] because I call them my board of directors. . . . I am really enjoying discussing with them and reporting to them what’s going on, and they’re giving me feedback and we’re trying to work with that.”

He explained they don’t do the research themselves, but they do invest in outside teams at universities, national labs and in industry.

“We create programs. For example, we have a program on advanced batteries right now that’s ongoing. What we do is we set targets for those batteries — say, for transportation. This program is called BEEST — Batteries for Electrical Energy Storage for Transportation. If you look at plug-in vehicles or hybrid vehicles today, they are based on lithium ion batteries . . . but the U.S. has one percent of the market share for manufacturing lithium ion batteries, and we invented them. So, we said that we need to look at technologies of the future which will make today’s lithium ion batteries obsolete.”

In order to do that, ARPA-E will invest in various different competitive approaches, with the hopes that one or two will eventually be ready for business.

“The next generation, 21st century clean energy economy [is] what we’re trying to invest in. So, what we do is we put out a challenge. We [hold] a workshop of the best minds in this country and figure out what is state-of-the-art today, and what’s a stretch goal? What could we do, potentially, which we don’t know exactly how to do? Let’s put the marker a little bit ahead. Communities give us input, and then we create a program based on that.”

The programs are precursors to ones like BEEST, which are then funded by ARPA-E. Out of this, it is hoped, a few different competitive approaches will emerge and businesses can then take over.

“We need to create this internal competition in the United States. If you look at the Internet . . . Google, Microsoft, Yahoo are all competing with each other, and that’s good, because one of them may be number one, the other may be number two, the other may be number three — but all three of them are the top three in the world. That’s what competition does. So, what the government can do is to create a little bit of the competition and let [people] compete and win in technology and business.”

Ultimately, he said, ARPA-E is trying to solve national issues having to do with energy security, energy independence and keeping the United States at the forefront of global technology.

“Everyone has a stake in it. This is not just mine — or everyone at ARPA-E’s — agency. This is everyone’s agency.”