Back in the days of the Cold War, the U.S. government launched DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, to jump-start military technology. Now the challenges are global warming and energy independence — and the Department of Energy is tackling the new crises the same way: The Advanced Research Projects Agency — Energy, or ARPA — E, is funneling hundreds of millions of stimulus dollars into what it calls "high-risk, high-payoff" green-technology projects still in their infancy.
The agency, founded in 2007 but not funded until 2009, doled out $351 million between October and March, largely to companies and laboratories tackling early-stage grid tech, solar fuels, and energy-efficient lighting. In its latest wave of funding, in April, ARPA — E announced grants totaling $106 million to 37 ventures in disruptive biofuels, batteries, and carbon capture. While large corporations including GE and Applied Materials were among the grantees, less familiar names were also on the winners list. Here are three promising projects funded in the April round.
Batteries: ReVolt Technology
The prospect of powering the electric-car revolution with rechargeable zinc-air batteries rather than lithium-ion units won $5 million for six-year-old ReVolt Technology, which has its U.S. headquarters in Portland, Oregon. Using more plentiful — and less toxic — zinc could cut per-watt-hour battery costs by two-thirds. The ReVolt system passes a zinc slurry between electrodes so the cell is constantly recharged, potentially extending the driving range of plug-in cars from 100 miles to several hundred. The company plans to deliver a prototype within three years. "Realistically, we're five to seven years away from putting these units in cars," says ReVolt CEO James P. McDougall. "Still, several automobile companies are all extremely interested in our battery architecture."
Carbon Capture: ATK
In what feels like an echo of DARPA, ARPA — E awarded $1 million to Minnesota aerospace company ATK — originally a Honeywell spin-off — to apply rocket-nozzle technology to carbon-capture systems for coal-fired power plants. Instead of using pricey chemical additives and membrane filters to separate out CO2, ATK relies on aerodynamics. Gases expand as they are forced through a nozzle at high pressures, freezing 90% of the CO2 and making it easier to dispose or repurpose. Conventional means of recapturing CO2 from coal plants could raise the cost of generating electricity by 80%, says ATK vice president Robert Bakos. "Our approach would cut this increase by more than 60%." His target: a pilot plant up and running in three years.
Biofuel: OPX Biotechnologies
With its corn-and-sugarcane bio-acrylics now in their pilot stage, three-year-old Boulder, Colorado — based OPX Biotechnologies snagged $6 million for its next venture: to engineer a microorganism capable of turning hydrogen and CO2 into sustainable fuel for cars and jets that would cost $2.50 a gallon or less. "We already have proof of concept for an organism that makes this possible," says OPX chief Chas Eggert.
The best thing about the OPX biofuel project? No electric charging stations, no hydrogen-refueling infrastructure. The biodiesel could be delivered to our tanks just as gasoline is now.
Next up at ARPA — E: Smartgrid funding for utility-scale storage solutions, cooling systems, and electric-power-transmission projects.
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.