ENERGY DIRECTOR: Arun Majumdar, pictured here, is the director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-e, a high risk energy research effort by the U.S. government. Image: DOE PHOTO: Kenn Shipp
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NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—Every day the U.S. imports $1 billion worth of oil. Yet, the nation is no closer to weaning itself from such foreign oil than it was 40 years ago when President Carter called energy reform the "moral equivalent of war."
Enter ARPA–e, the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, started in 2009 and tasked with taking scientific findings on alternative energy and turning them into deployable technologies. "The future of the U.S. depends on three securities: national, economic and environmental," said mechanical engineer Arun Majumdar and ARPA–e director at the agency's second annual summit in Washington, D.C., on March 1. "The foundation of all three is innovations in energy technology."
Majumdar came to ARPA–e and Washington, D.C., from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where he had run the Environmental Energy Technologies Division, leaving his wife and young daughters back in California. Nevertheless, the affable director maintains the enthusiasm and demeanor of Star Trek's Captain Kirk as well as that character's penchant for confrontation, exercised constructively on his agency's grantees and on stubborn facts like the tab for the U.S. dependence on foreign oil—more than $300 billion a year. "In my lifetime, I'd love to shave a few zeros off this number," he says.
So ARPA–e under Majumdar is investing its budget in projects like better batteries for electric cars that could further reduce U.S. demand for oil, cheaper photovoltaics to generate the electricity to store in those batteries, and even technologies dubbed "electrofuels" to turn CO2 back into liquid fuel—reversing combustion, extending oil supplies and limiting greenhouse gas emissions.
The goal is to invent a different future for energy, one that both enables the U.S. to continue to use energy abundantly and spreads it to the rest of the world. "We are bright and we need to make ourselves brighter in a sustainable way. But there are many parts of the world where people have not yet turned on the lights," Majumdar noted. "If we can enable them to turn on the right kinds of lights, that is the biggest business opportunity for the U.S."
Scientific American spoke with Majumdar about ARPA–e, innovation and education after the summit.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
The U.S. government obviously has a large variety of energy research efforts, almost like a large ecosystem. How does ARPA–e fit into that?
If you have a major hurdle, you need assurance of funding to get the brightest people to come on board—scientists and engineers working together. That's the design of a hub, like the sunlight-to-fuels hub at the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis [at Caltech]…. JCAP is trying to understand the science of how to split water…. ARPA–e is a different model. You're translating the science into technology and you have a quick hit. It doesn't mean that it's reaching the market right away after two or three years [of funding], it still will take scaling and all that. But at least you're trying out an idea. The National Academy report [Rising Above the Gathering Storm] that created ARPA–e, the wise thought-leaders behind it felt that a place to go and try out a new, high-risk idea did not exist. [That is] what ARPA–e was created for.