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See Inside May 2011

"Let's Go for It": Q&A with Head of ARPA-e, the U.S. High-Risk Energy Research Agency

The leader of the government's push into alternative energy talks about fuel-making microbes, the next industrial revolution and how soon his high-risk projects will reach the market



Courtesy of Ken Shipp U.S. Department of Energy

Name: Arun Majumdar
Title: Director, Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy
Location: Washington, D.C.

What is ARPA–e’s mandate?
The wise thought leaders who created ARPA-e 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.

We are saying that if energy is the next industrial revolution and if we are going to be competitive in this globally competitive world, and we are falling behind right now, gosh, let’s go for it. You need ARPA-e to look for short-term translation of science into technology.

What kinds of projects is ­ARPA-e funding?
Scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are making progress on electro­fuels [using microbes to turn carbon dioxide back into liquid fuels similar to gasoline]. They have got a new catalyst that is cheaper, and they are taking that catalyst and attaching it to a microbe, and that’s supposed to produce the hydrogen that the bug will consume to produce electrofuels. I don’t think they have any idea whether the catalyst will actually work when attached to the bug, but you’ve got to just try it out. Now that’s risky. But there are slightly less risky projects as well.

This high-risk research also includes developing better batteries for electric cars, cheaper photovoltaics and power electronics (superefficient electrical converters). When will these projects start to deliver?
My most optimistic estimate is 10 years for when these products will actually be in the hands of consumers or placed in the energy infrastructure. But frankly, look at how long the Internet took, from 1968, and ARPAnet to the late 1980s. That’s 20 years. That’s the sort of time­scale we should be looking at.

Which programs can deliver fastest?
Electrofuels are really in an early stage. I don’t think we should expect that any time soon. Maybe power electronics.

How do you decide when something’s a failure?
Usually if a project does not meet its milestones [after an extension of] two or three months. We give them a little window instead of just cutting them off.

Still, our primary goal is to help researchers reach their milestones and move forward. We tell our folks, look, if something’s not working and we terminate a project, don’t take it personally. Come back again, and we will try to support you.

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