The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) announced the winners of its latest round of grants yesterday in a telephone conference. The funds will advance research projects geared toward improving energy efficiency, developing alternative fuels, improving electrical infrastructure and reducing U.S. dependence on foreign resources.

"In America and around the world, we are in another Sputnik-like moment in the race to develop clean energy," said Arun Majumdar, ARPA-E's director. He said his agency's goal is to seek out "transformational technology" to solve energy issues and spur the economy forward.

Now in its fourth round of awards, ARPA-E allocated $156 million to 60 projects grouped in five focus areas: Plants Engineered to Replace Oil (PETRO), Rare Earth Alternatives in Critical Technologies for Energy (REACT), High Energy Advanced Thermal Storage (HEATS), Green Electricity Network Integration (GENI) and Solar Agile Delivery of Electrical Power Technology (Solar ADEPT). The final award amounts have yet to be settled.

"This is great news for us," said Jian-Ping Wang, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Minnesota. His $2.5 million proposal under REACT was selected to develop strong magnets without the use of rare earth elements. Currently, the United States imports the majority of its rare earth magnets, most coming from China.

These magnets are used in wind turbines and electric vehicle motors. Wang said his research could yield the "holy grail" of magnets, having very high energy density but made with common materials.

Turpentine harvesting and solar heat storage
Gary Peter, a professor of forest genomics and cell biology at the University of Florida, sought $6.3 million in funding to increase turpentine production from pine trees from PETRO. He said his work could potentially generate 100 million gallons of biofuel from less than 25,000 acres of forestland. He also praised ARPA-E's efforts in financing early-stage energy research. "This likely wouldn't be funded by typical agencies," he said.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, several teams were selected to develop heat energy storage solutions. Materials science and engineering professor Jeffrey Grossman said that close to 90 percent of the energy we use is turned into heat, so storing it is critical to future energy development.

"Unlike electricity, with which we are familiar, we don't have a way of renewably making, storing and accessing heat on demand," said Grossman. "What our technology does is that it revisits an old idea." It is storing solar heat directly instead of trying to convert it to electricity.

Majumdar also said that infrastructure development is a major component of this round of funding. "We need to create the equivalent of the Internet for the grid," Majumdar said.

Despite the current economic turmoil, Majumdar was optimistic about ARPA-E's work. "We are obviously in a tough budget climate," Majumdar said. "I'm quite confident that Congress will look at the value of this program and support it." He also said that five of the previous grantees, which received a total of $15.5 million in seed funding from ARPA-E, attracted more than $100 million in capital from private investors between them.

ARPA-E was created in 2007 to fund high-risk, high-yield research in energy technologies. In addition to the current round of grants, the agency has previously awarded $365.7 million across more than 120 projects.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500