Sci-Fi Energy Solutions

Nov. 26, 2012
Takeaways from the late night movie may be next generation energy solutions from a sci-fi angle.

It has elements of a sci-fi movie – a tiny band of brilliant scientists, hidden at a remote underground location, struggling to develop an antidote for an imminent threat.

I may have overplayed that description a little bit, but it reflects the reaction I had when I first learned of the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, also known as the ARPA-E. Obscured deep within the massive U.S. Department of Energy, ARPA-E is committed to “transformational” energy research and technology.

The agency’s roots lie in a 2006 National Academies report, Rising above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future. The report recommended the creation of an agency that would attract the brightest minds to work on energy research. The mission: To boldly go where industry cannot go alone, or will not go, due to its high risk. The research programs are designed to develop technology that decreases greenhouse gases, ensures a U.S. leadership position in energy, and reduces reliance on foreign energy sources.

ARPA-E is modeled after the successful Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is responsible for such technological innovations as the internet and the military’s stealth technology. Its organization is designed to be flat and nimble, quickly phasing out projects that don’t pan out and pursuing those that do. Initially funded with $400 million in Recovery Act funds, the agency focuses on only the most advanced and innovative technologies. It is separate from far larger DOE programs investing in conventional energy.

ARPA-E research covers more than a dozen major areas, including energy storage, power grids, vehicles, and alternative fuels. Most closely related to building systems is the Building Energy Efficiency Through Innovative Thermodevices (BEETIT) program, which has 14 current projects, most of which are targeted at ventilation and cooling. Several focus on a recently discovered magnetic property, the electrocaloric effect, that may lead to solid-state cooling equipment without liquid refrigerants. Another focuses on new molecular materials that could make adsorbent chillers half the size but twice as efficient. Still another is a membrane-based heat and moisture exchanger integrated into exterior walls, an approach that would vastly increase an exchanger’s surface area while reducing the required fan power.

Many would decry ARPA-E’s efforts because it is a government program and government’s role is not to spend taxpayer funds on research. Needless to say, all such programs need to be managed responsibly, and not as though they were so many pork barrels. But for those who believe that government cannot ever manage responsibly, do you really want to hand over energy leadership to those countries whose governments do support such initiatives? That attitude brings to my mind the German proverb about throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

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