ARPA-E: Welcome to the Department of Big Dreams

  • Share
  • Read Later
David Paul Morris / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Solar panels are checked at the SunPower Corp. module-manufacturing plant at Flextronics in Milpitas, Calif., on Aug. 24, 2011

Why was the 20th century the American century? It certainly helped that the U.S. — unlike just about every other major power in Europe or Asia — did not endure a ruinous war on its home territory. American agriculture kept our population growing and well fed, while abundant natural resources like oil, coal and iron helped power our economy. But the foundation of American power and influence was superior innovation. Before we won military, economic or political battles, we won knowledge battles. The electric lightbulb, the mass-produced automobile, the airplane, the personal computer, the Internet — homegrown American innovators produced the new ideas and the new products that, to use President Barack Obama's State of the Union slogan, won the future.

Lately, though, we've lost confidence in the American ability to innovate — especially on clean energy, the defining technological and economic challenge of the next several decades. Homegrown solar companies are falling behind cheaper Chinese competitors, while European firms have taken the lead on energy efficiency and other renewables. The U.S. imports more and more oil every year, while the institutions that have kept the country stocked with homegrown minds — great public schools like the University of California — are bleeding to death from budget cuts. Politicians and the public may worry about the waning economy and high unemployment today — a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll had 73% of Americans saying the country was going in the wrong direction — but if we lose our innovation edge, we've lost the century.

Arun Majumdar says that doesn't have to happen. Majumdar is the first director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), and he might have the best job in government. ARPA-E is inspired by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — the well-funded military think tank that's helped invent everything from the GPS system to the Internet — and its job is to fund the kind of transformative technologies that could really change the way we use energy. That's good for the global environment — we need cleaner and more abundant power to feed a growing population on a shrinking planet — but it's good for the U.S. economy too. "There's a global competition going on, and speed is of the essence," Majumdar told an audience last week at an energy conference put on by the innovation network PopTech in New York City. "The future is up for grabs."

Majumdar — an energy expert who worked at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory before taking over ARPA-E in 2009 — sees the energy challenge in a global, holistic way. On one hand, climate change and resource scarcity means that we have to develop new and cleaner sources of energy — otherwise we'll either cook ourselves or simply run out of juice, whichever comes first. But there are also hundreds of millions of new consumers around the world who lack the energy they need to live — meaning our power mix doesn't just have to get cleaner, it needs to get cheaper too. That's an enormous problem, and it's going to require serious innovation. "We need to enable people to grow their economies and technologies in a sustainable way," Majumdar says. "The technologies to do that don't exist today."

That's where ARPA-E comes in. Venture capitalists in Silicon Valley and bureaucrats in Washington might help fund new companies that improve on existing technologies and are close to commercialization — think energy-efficient software and more productive solar panels. But ARPA-E funds the sort of ideas — from university groups and early start-ups — that are far from turning profit today but which could pay off enormously in the future. "We think of ourselves as preventure funders, [ideas] that are too risky for VCs," says Majumdar.

Some of the most promising ideas on their plate include:
• Electrofuels that can use custom-designed microbes to convert carbon dioxide into liquid biofuels compatible with today's transport infrastructure.
• Superior batteries that could be up to 10 times more powerful than today's popular lithium-ion cells, with the aim of producing batteries that could make electric fully vehicles competitive with gasoline-powered cars.
• The SunShot Initiative — shades of Kennedy's moon-shot pledge — which promotes technologies that could lower the cost of solar power to 5 cents a kilowatt-hour, cheap enough to compete easily with fossil fuels.
• A smarter, more powerful electrical grid that could seamlessly store the power generated by the sun or the wind — enabling renewable power to meet around-the-clock demand.

Most of the ideas funded by Majumdar and his colleagues at ARPA-E won't succeed. That's just the nature of experimentation — one truly transformative success for every 10 failures would be an excellent ratio. But that kind of gambling isn't often supported in Washington, where success often means avoiding blame. It doesn't help that the Obama Administration has placed some unfortunate bets on renewable energy, including hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money for the solar start-up Solyndra — which just went belly up. And while science and technology operate on a long-term schedule — think 10 to 15 years ahead — politicians need to deliver by the next election cycle. Not even the luckiest scientist can hit pay dirt that fast — especially on the massive scale of the global energy system.

Still, at a time when those who care about clean energy are desperate for even a scrap of good news, the work of ARPA-E offers a glimmer of optimism. Perhaps even more, it provides hope that America's most innovative days are still ahead of us, that we still have the brains and the nerve needed to win the future. "We have a shot at changing the future," says Majumdar. "This is real — this is not fiction." The ideas are there; give them the support they need, and we might have back-to-back American centuries.