60-Second Earth

Seeking Transformational Energy Technologies

Does the U.S. need an advanced research projects agency for energy? David Biello reports

[This special issue podcast is longer than the usual 60 seconds.]

Last week, the new Advanced Research Projects Agency for energy held its inaugural conference in Washington, D.C.—a direct response to a growing sense that the U.S. is losing its technology lead when it comes to the race for cleaner ways to produce and use energy. "We have a Sputnik moment right now. We are losing our technology leadership and we are falling behind."

That's Arun Majumdar, the first director of ARPA-E . "Our role is to take the high-risk, high-payoff approach to developing technologies which are sort of swinging for the home runs. Business as usual and the pace of innovation is jut not fast enough."

The hope is that by seeking novel technologies, like turning a bottle of water into an energy storage device , the U.S. can recapture the lead in the "green revolution" underway in the multi-trillion dollar global energy market.  

After all, European companies dominate renewable energy technologies such as wind turbines or solar thermal power plants . And China is leapfrogging ahead to produce cheap photovoltaic solar cells . "They missed the first Industrial Revolution, they missed the computer revolution, a lot of the biology revolution, they want to be a leader in the new industrial revolution towards a green energy future," says our secretary of energy Steven Chu of the Chinese. "We should be a leader, the leader in this new green energy revolution."

That's where the $80 billion in stimulus money directly targeted towards energy comes in, including the $400 million for this new ARPA-e effort, an effort meant to mimic the success of DARPA in the world of defense technologies. DARPA is the secretive agency that can be blamed for everything from the Internet to stealth bombers.  

There doesn't seem to be a shortage of good ideas on energy. Initial funding will explore everything from liquid metal batteries that store large amounts of electricity to cheaper ways of making solar cells from silicon. As Chu says "There are hundreds that we believe should be worthy of funding."

—David Biello

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