In his State of the Union address, President Obama painted a vision of the jobs of tomorrow -- then pointed to the scientists of today.
"None of us can predict with certainty what the next big industry will be, or where the new jobs will come from," Obama admitted. But historically, he said, the government has funded basic research that the private sector hesitated to fund itself. Decades later, some of these early forays in laboratories gave birth to entire industries, such as those built around the Internet and the Global Positioning System.
"Just think of all the good jobs -- from manufacturing to retail -- that have come from those breakthroughs," he said.
A new DOE agency, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, is key to the president's vision of scientific "breakthroughs" that can reshape energy, generate jobs and sharpen the United States' competitive edge.
Obama gave ARPA-E, as it's known, its first endowment in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Over the past year and a half, the agency sought out "game-changing" technologies now in their infancy at research labs, startup companies and some adventurous larger firms. It tried to assess the best projects, granted them between $1 million and $5 million, and issued this challenge: over three years, to advance their technology to a point where the private sector will snap it up.
Sixteen of these projects, totaling about $62 million, are applicable to electric cars. ARPA-E's director, Arun Majumdar, said there's a range of technologies and approaches. Each has a unique mountain to climb, whether it's reliability, cost, efficiency or a combination of these. "And I don't know which one is going to succeed," he said. "But if one of them does, I think it will be game-changing."
A vision of the ultimate battery
One of the most exciting prospects is lithium-air technology, a decade-old idea that many think could be the ultimate battery. Today's electric cars max out at 100 miles on a single charge, but lithium-air could theoretically make distances of 400 and 500 miles possible. Its cells pulse with so much energy, in fact, that it rivals gasoline.
A 2011 Honda Civic, driven to its last drop, travels about 350 miles. Lithium-air is one of the only batteries that can get in that ballpark without taking up much more space than an average lead-acid auto battery. If Americans see that equation and buy the cars en masse, transportation emissions will decline, because even with a power grid that's half coal-fired, charging an electric car still causes less emissions than an all-gasoline car.
The White House argues that if lithium-air achieves a breakthrough, or any of the other battery technologies do, the payoff will be huge. Money normally spent on foreign oil could stay in the U.S. economy. One-hundred-thirty-million cars in the United States, gradually turning electric, would revitalize the auto industry as well as its suppliers in the Midwest. More manufacturing jobs would sprout up to supply the tons of minerals and materials that go into the batteries. Used-up batteries could find a second life on the grid.
There is one big drawback: Today, no one knows how to make lithium-air batteries at the cost and quality necessary for an electric car. Indeed, the scientific barriers are deemed so high that the batteries are considered to be a possibility only 10 to 20 years from now.
ARPA-E is counting on researchers like Yangchuan Xing to wrest that future closer. Xing, an associate professor of chemical and biological engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology, received one of two ARPA-E awards for lithium-air batteries.