When the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1958, alarmed U.S. citizens worried that their nation was losing its technological edge. In response, the federal government created the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to stimulate major advances in the space, defense and information sectors. Now more than 50 years later, the U.S. faces three new Sputnik-like challenges, but in another domain: energy and the environment.
Confronting the nation’s increased dependence on foreign oil, substantial contribution to atmospheric greenhouse gases and declining share of the global energy technology market, the government last year created the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), its only agency devoted to transformational energy research and development. In a Presidential Lecture on Energy and Sustainability on Sept. 29 at the Boston University Photonics Center, ARPA-E Director Arun Majumdar underscored the urgent need to stimulate clean energy innovation and investment.
“If we don’t find alternatives, we have a problem, because energy innovation is at the core of our national, economic and environmental security,” he said. “This is the DNA of our nation and we have to address this aggressively.”
To that end, ARPA-E is funding 37 energy innovation projects (each receiving an average of $4 million and lasting two to three years) aimed at advancing “game-changing” technologies—bold new solutions that render existing approaches obsolete. Noting the powerful impact that about a dozen game-changing technologies, from artificial fertilizers to the polio vaccine to antibiotics, had on seemingly intractable problems of the 20th century, Majumdar asked the audience to imagine the equivalent of all of those innovations occurring in the next 20 years.
A Bold Agenda
By that time, ARPA-E leaders hope the agency will have helped enable solar electricity generation to cost less than fossil-fuel-based production; a smart grid that considerably reduces fossil energy consumption and encourages increased renewable energy production; economical carbon capture and utilization technologies; cheaper, more powerful car batteries; transportation fuels from sunlight, carbon dioxide and/or agricultural waste that cost lower than petroleum; a 50 to 80 percent reduction in energy consumption in homes and buildings; low-cost desalination of water; and low-cost and safe nuclear energy.
“Given where we are today in the energy sector, we’d better be going after these game changers,” said Majumdar, “because business as usual is not going to get us there.”
The first ARPA-E projects go far beyond business as usual. They include efforts to convert plant cellulose to biofuels more efficiently and cost-effectively; increase electric power storage capability on the grid; develop a turbine that captures more energy from the wind; produce a battery for electric and hybrid-electric vehicles that packs 2.5 times the energy density of today’s batteries at one-fourth the cost; enable low-cost carbon capture at coal-fired power plants; and develop low-cost, higher performing power electronics for computers, solid state lighting and many other applications.
Engaging the Next Generation
These and other ARPA-E projects seek to spark technological breakthroughs and commercial investment that will enable this and future generations of U.S. citizens to reduce their energy consumption without changing their lifestyle, and to accommodate increased energy demand without negatively impacting the environment.
In addition to sponsoring projects to develop disruptive energy technologies, the agency has created the ARPA-E Fellows program, a think tank for young scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs focused on new energy technology and business strategies, and organized activities to engage high school and college students in this work.
“I know that here and at many other campuses, students are really excited about energy and the environment, and that’s the future,” said Majumdar. “I haven’t seen this kind of excitement and passion anywhere in the world.”
Majumdar’s presentation was sponsored by the BU Clean Energy and Environmental Sustainability Initiative (CEESI), a collaboration of six Colleges and Schools at BU, including the College of Engineering, which hosted the event. CEESI faculty members, many based at the College of Engineering, are leading cross-disciplinary and world-class research efforts on problems such as the smart grid, the hydrogen economy, green manufacturing and smart lighting.