The Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA–E) works on a three-year cycle: Funded projects have three years to prove worthy—or not. Program directors who help fund projects such as Plants Engineered to Replace Petroleum (PETRO) or Batteries for Electrical Energy Storage in Transportation (BEEST) have three years to steer the research. And, after three years at the helm as the founding director of ARPA–E, mechanical engineer Arun Majumdar has announced that he will be stepping down in June.
"Under Arun's leadership, we have seen ARPA–E grow from a fledgling program to become a leading agency for innovation and energy research," Secretary of Energy Steven Chu wrote in an e-mail announcing the surprise change. "Arun has been an invaluable resource to me, to the department, to the administration—and we will miss his leadership."
Majumdar has led the agency's quest for what Secretary Chu has called "a second Industrial Revolution, a revolution that gives [the] developed and developing world the energy it wants and needs, but that can be clean energy," overseeing more than $500 million in funding for roughly 180 projects in 12 program areas. He even helped devise program acronyms like PETRO.
Modeled on the Pentagon's successful Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) but uniquely focused on developing energy technologies that can be cheap and have a big impact, ARPA–E has already seen some of its most successful projects garner an additional $200 million in private investment. "Pound for pound, dollar for dollar, it's hard to find a more effective thing the government has done than ARPA–E," argued FedEx chairman Fred Smith at the agency's most recent conference.
Scientific American spoke with Majumdar about ARPA–E and its future at the agency's third annual conference in March.
[An edited transcript of the conversation follows.]
ARPA–E has recently announced some successes like a new, more energy-dense lithium ion battery. As these technologies flower or fail, how do you reassess your programs?
There are the original milestones in the cooperative agreements that we have with projects. Before we start any project, before we even have a contract signed, we negotiate technological milestones, which in [the case of the Envia battery] included both energy density and cycle life. For the successes like Envia, they will probably have to raise some private sector money, which they are doing. General Motors is investing in the technology, for example. They will need more to put up a manufacturing plant. Ultimately, it's a business proposition. I don't know exactly what they're doing. They don't have to share it with us. I would love to see them off and running.
How does it work with other parts of the Department of Energy (DoE)? Do you sometimes hand projects off?
The DoE has applied-energy programs. Some technologies take longer for the private sector to come in. That's where applied energy programs are helpful in general—to carry on the baton to the point where the private sector comes in.