and summarized its work as a catalyst of government-university-industry-national lab partnerships.
Majumdar stated that “the mission of ARPA-E is to fund projects that will develop transformational technologies that reduce America’s dependence on foreign energy imports, reduce U.S. energy-related emissions, improve energy efficiency across all sectors of the U.S. economy, and ensure that the United States maintains its leadership in developing and deploying advanced energy technologies.”1 The agency’s mission is patterned on that of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which was created during the Cold War to foster radical innovation in defense-related technologies. However, there is a fundamental difference between DARPA and ARPA-E, Majumdar observed. The defense sector is an essentially closed sector of the economy in that it has an eventual customer (the Department of Defense). The energy sector is almost completely open in the sense that the eventual customer could be businesses, consumers, or government. ARPA-E therefore needs to support projects that ultimately will succeed in the marketplace and enable businesses. “It’s a different ball game than the DARPA model,” he said. ARPA-E looks to create technologies that will induce the private sector to scale up those technologies, “because scaling is what industry does really well.”
Examples of Success
Majumdar cited two examples of the approach ARPA-E has taken. The first is the Batteries for Electrical Energy Storage in Transportation (BEEST) program. Instead of incrementally improving the lithium ion battery, the program sought a battery that would give electric cars a longer range and cheaper operating costs than gasoline-based cars. Such a battery needs double the energy density of today’s lithium-ion battery at one-third the cost. “This is a really hard problem,” said Majumdar.
The program has been supporting several promising approaches. One is an “all-electron battery” being developed at Stanford University that moves electrons rather than ions in the battery. Another is a lithium air battery that provides extremely high energy densities. “People thought this was impossible. Now they’re making modules of these, and of course they want to get into manufacturing.”
Majumdar also cited a biofuel example. Photosynthesis is an inefficient process for converting sunlight into energy, so ARPA-E is supporting comparable processes with much higher efficiencies. One such process, called Electrofuels, uses microorganisms to harness electrochemical energy from wind, solar, nuclear, or other energy sources to convert carbon dioxide