Tech Talk - The ARPA-E 2012 Awards

The Department of Energy has just announced the projects selected for funding in the next round of the ARPA-E program. This is the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, first funded in 2009, to, inter alia, "focus on creative “out-of-the-box” transformational energy research that industry by itself cannot or will not support due to its high risk but where success would provide dramatic benefits for the nation". There are some 66 projects on the list, which is broken down into eleven different focus areas. These are the technologies that the ARPA-E program is betting some $130 million on as sources of future energy supply or savings. It is worth taking a quick glance through the topics to see what is considered important and likely of success.

The two largest areas of funding are Advanced Fuels and Grid Modernization, both of which get around $24 million or 18% of the pie. This is split among 13 fuel projects, and 9 grid-related projects. With the growing supply of natural gas that is coming from the developing shale gas reserves in the country, it is perhaps no surprise to see that methane conversion to liquid fuel captures the largest part of the fuel funding this year, being the theme of nine of the awards.

The largest of the fuel awards goes to Allylix, a company that specializes in terpenes, and who is tasked with turning these into a viable aviation fuel. Specific genes needed for terpene production are extracted from a biosource, and then optimized for use in a yeast host. The optimization is an engineered change that can increase product yield several hundred fold (according to their website). From that point there is a fermentation process, and then a recovery and purification of the liquid fuel, which is stated to be already commercially viable.

There is only one algae award this year, to Cornell for $910k, and they will look at using light fibers in a small reactor as a means of improving economics. After having looked into this process I am prone to disagree that smaller is better (if you are going to generate hundreds of thousands of barrels a day you need large systems, and anything on a smaller scale is hardly worthwhile). Further there are issues with engineered light paths, but they will no doubt find those out as they carry on with their work.

The “different” program in this effort is for $1.8 million that is being given to Plant Sensory Systems to develop a high-output, low-input beet plant for sugar production.

There are just two awards for Advanced Vehicles, one to Electron Energy Corp to produce better permanent magnets that don’t rely on rare-earths, and one to United Technologies to improve efficiency by using laser deposition of alternate layers of copper and insulation in a new electric motor design. This will also reduce rare-earth dependence. They roughly split $5.6 million.

The $5.3 million for improving building efficiency goes to California, and is split with two awards to Lawrence Berkeley and one to Stanford. Each has a project on using coatings to alter the thermal transfer to the buildings and cars, while Lawrence Berkeley also gets almost $2 million for modeling studies of building heat losses.

The $10 million for carbon capture is split four ways, with two awards (to Arizona State and Dioxide Materials) for electrochemical systems that will generate new fuels from the carbon dioxide output of power plants, while the University of Massachusetts at Lowell is developing (for $3 million) a catalyst that will also combine sunlight, CO2 and water into a fuel precursor.

The fourth award is to the University of Pittsburg (at $2.4 million) for a way to thicken liquid CO2 either as a way of improving EOR, or as a substitute for water in hydrofracking. I can’t quite see the advantage of a thicker fluid for use in EOR, since the hope, surely, is to have a very low viscosity fluid that can more easily penetrate into the formation and mix with the oil, but the application in fracking is intriguing.

The emphasis with the investments in Grid Modernization (the co-largest topic) is on improving switchgear (five awards). In addition. there are two awards for modeling, one on improved instrumentation and one to Grid Logic ($3.8 million) for developing a new super-conducting wire for power transmission.

There are two awards, both for $2 million, in the “Other” category. One is to MIT for a water purification system, wile the other is to Harvard. This latter is for a “self-repairing” coating that can be applied to water and oil pipes to reduce friction and thus lower pumping costs. The old fall-back on this was Teflon, which could be very effective, but any particulate matter in the fluid will erode this over time, so the “self-healing” aspect could be worthwhile, since it might allow a much thinner liner.

The $18.76 million for Renewable Energy projects is distributed to wind, sun, and water energies, with two projects in waves where Brown University will be building a new underwater wing to capture flowing water energy, and Sea Engineering, who will be developing a better buoy for acquiring data for tidal energy potential assessment. Wind is down to a two projects, one, which seems a bit regressive, is to GE who will develop fabric blades for wind turbines for $3.7 million. A similar amount is going to Georgia Tech to develop a vertical axis turbine. The remaining six projects deal with solar power of which the most interesting, perhaps, is that at Cal Tech which is going to look into splitting light into its different color bands (think prism) before using them to improve device efficiency. We have seen that converting white light electronically to the narrow optimal color band can have dramatic effects on improving algae growth rates, for example, but it requires a bit more refinement to achieve the narrow division than, I suspect, will be possible optically.

The section that will invest $12 million in Stationary Energy Storage is funding eight projects looking at different battery technologies. The largest investment ($4 million) is going to Alveo Energy, which has an intriguing entry in Find the Company. It was apparently only founded this year. The technology that it is chasing involves using Prussian Blue dye as the active ingredient in the battery.

The other “out of the ordinary” award is to Tai Yang which is affiliated with Florida State University. Superconductivity Center. The $2.15 million award is to develop a method for storing energy in a high-power superconducting cable.

Pratt and Whitney get two of the three Stationary Generation awards - the first for $650k is to develop a continuous detonation gas turbine, while the second, for $600k is for work on an ultra-high temperature gas turbine. The University of North Dakota gets the third award to look at developing air cooling for power plants.

The $9.5 million for Thermal Energy Storage is split five ways, with three awards for the development of power from the waste heat in existing systems, one to the NREL for a solar thermal electric generator, and one to Georgia Tech for a solar fuels reactor using liquid metals.

When it comes to finding answers to Transportation Energy Storage the Agency is committing $15.3 million to seven projects. Six of these deal with battery development. (A123 Systems who previously received a $249 million federal grant to develop electric car batteries recently went bankrupt.) Two of the awards, to Georgia Tech and to UC Santa Barbara will seek to combine super-capacitor design with battery capabilities, while the Palo Alto Research Center will use a printing process to construct batteries.

Ceramatec is being funded, at $2.1 million, to develop a solid-state fuel cell using low-cost materials.

There is a clear change in emphasis from earlier years reflecting, no doubt, the results from ongoing research, as well as the obvious change that the current natural gas availability is allowing in developing technical advances for the future. It should, however, be born in mind that while some of these will likely prove to be quite successful, it will still take perhaps a decade before any of them can be anticipated to have any significant impact on the market.

How many perpetual motion machines are they trying to fund the development of? Burn fossil fuel to generate electricity and CO2, use electricity and CO2 to generate fuel. At least Arizona State are only saying that they will do it in a less inefficient way than can be done at present. Dioxide are pretending its possible to come out ahead.

If you're placing your bets far and wide, then one bet you place is on efficiency improvements that (1) might buy us time (2) might be useful for the remaining high-value uses of liquid chemical fuel (which we might synthesize in a green fashion) (3) might make carbon sequestration from some fossil fuels cost-competitive (4) might make hydrogen-storage cost-competitive.

Sequestration of hot CO2 from IGCC plants could be used to get more oil from the ground. There are ways we can have more energy with less pollution, but we need more decision making using all factors, not just economic.

Intermittent renewable energy is cheap, but variably dispatchable load-following electricity supply is mostly fossil-fueled. In the absence of low-cost, high-capacity, high-efficiency storage of excess intermittent generation, it potentially makes very good sense instead to electrolyse water to oxygen and hydrogen with excess intermittent power, capture CO2 from the load-following fuel-burning power supply that runs when intermittent power is inadequate to demand, then store and/or combine these gases "at leisure" (ie. around the clock) to synthesise high-value products such as methane or liquid hydrocarbons.

"Tensioned Fabric Wind Blades"

"Today, wind turbines use rigid fiberglass blades that are difficult to manufacture and transport. GE Power and Water will develop wind turbine blades using fabric stretched across a frame."

I've heard the GE was going to try this. The wind loading of the turbine blades is low enough that a modern aircraft fabric should work for the covering. Definitely back to the future.

Natural Gas Reactor for Remote Chemical Conversion.

Ceramatec, Inc. will develop a small-scale membrane reactor to convert natural gas into transportable liquids in one step. Many remote oil wells burn natural gas as a by-product because it is not economical to store or transport.

Such natural gas contains energy that equals 20% of annual U.S. electricity production (5 quadrillion BTUs worldwide). Capturing this energy would reduce both waste and greenhouse gas emissions and could be deployed in remote areas to convert otherwise wasted gas into usable chemicals that can be transported to market. $1,734,665

This could replace flaring with recovery of more energy.

As mentioned elsewhere about this funding effort - the Manhattan Project was 25 billion in today's dollars. So this is no "Manhattan Project".

And past government energy spending has gotten us a new cooling fan. Some are hopeful in boosting LED output by being able to cool the LEDs better.

Perhaps the award for the small chlorophyll reactors can create far higher value products than biofuel. Drugs as an example.

Maybe a Manhattan Kansas sized project?

There is a planned Manhattan Kansas project to include a Level 4 Biosafety laboratory to study dangerous biological agents.

This kind of R&D definitely needs to be funded.

We need to use our seed corn (remaining oil) wisely, otherwise we just consume it.

The new corporations are nation-states. Unless we do this we can't expect to be competitive with nationalized oil companies who happen to know not to eat all their seed corn.

I have said for a while now that we should use our remaining fossil fuels to develop renewable energy sources. Once we run out we are stuck. That may be the BEST use for fossil fuels, there is a gain, stability and longevity there.

I think that you're right there, by far the best use. However I don't see any indication that TPTB think similarly.

use our remaining fossil fuels to develop renewable energy sources

If I was dictator of the world I'd state it's best to use it as feedstock for various things* VS burned as fuel.

But such an edict would result in a lack of cooking and space heating and soon enough I'd be a corpse and a new person would be in charge.

*by things I do not mean plastic toys in happy meals.

you are right, our children will pay for it

Tried to be so squeaky clean but I'm in trouble again, oh yeah!

"Once we run out we are stuck."

Well stuck with ~200GWe of nuclear, hydro and other existing renewables, plus the existing biofuels used by transportation.

This could be wishful thinking but if we could put ceramic fuel cells in vehicles it could combine the best features of both ICE and EVs. It would combine a cheap long range fuel like compressed natgas (not expensive hydrogen) with the advantages of electric transmission. If I recall the Robert Rapier article on gas-to-liquids about 40% of the thermal energy is lost in the conversion process so this makes better use of natural gas. The cells might gunk up with waxy fuels so forget algae and pyrolysis oil.

However I understand ceramic fuel cells don't like being bounced around, they run at very high temperatures and cheap non-platinum catalysts are less efficient. I guess in future we will get used to the sight of battery vehicles being towed by diesel trucks because they ran out of juice. Ceramic FCVs will get towed because the cells disintegrated or got clogged. Perhaps DoE could fund a demonstration car.

SOFCs are actually more efficient than High Temperature PEMs and will run on natural gas directly, they reform it in the stack at over 1000F. Bouncing around is not the problem, they can be shock mounted. Thermal cycling can cause the glass seals to crack however. It takes quite a while for them to get to operating temperature from cold and that takes LOTS of energy.

A better configuration might be reforming liquid fuel to hydrogen then using that in high temperature PEM fuel cell. Volvo has a C30 using this configuration as a range extender much like a Chevy Volt. It can reform diesel, gasoline, ethanol or methanol to hydrogen.

How much do SOFCs cost these days?

the thermal energy is lost in the conversion process

In such a fuel cell utopia there would be a Combined Heat and Power use.

Could you convert the cell into a cooking surface and building heat?

Conversion of natural gas to methanol is endothermic, it requires heat for the reaction. Fuel cells are exothermic, they give off heat, so combined heat and power is possible.

If you use waste heat from power plants to provide heat for GTL methane to methanol plants, it can become more cost effective. This way you turn power plants into energy plants that create both electricity and fuels.

Low input sugar beet production for high output return seems promising, although if it requires the addition of fertilizers it seems self-defeating. I suppose GM is a part of the plan?

Corn to ethanol is about 1.3 EROEI, sugar beets are about 2 to 1, Sweet sorghum is 4 to 1 and sugar cane is about 8 to 1. Once you get the sugars would you can gasify the stalks to get even more fuel through synthesis.

66 projects for $130 million or about 2 million dollars a project. Actually I am surprised you can fund applied science projects this cheaply.

How useful would it be to increase energy research (generation, grid, efficiency of all kinds) by $6.4B per year for the next ten years?

That is 1/10 of this budget:

I put up a 'talk to the hand' to anyone whining about Solyndra etc.

Corporate welfare is alive and well...if you roll in the right circles.

Dr. Strangelove is still riding high is seems.

Ike nailed it.

Just a few of the other movies that come to mind:

- Three Days of the Condor

- Lord of War

- Cold Turkey

The Complex is so ingrained in the Matrix that we scarcely think actively about it.

You talked about Exergy somewhere, here are some links on the subject:

Rather disappointing that the US seems to have completely given up on alternative reactor designs like the MYRRHA prototype design that is getting developed for commercialization in Europe. Being accelerator driven this thing will be inherently save and able to consume various fuels (including current nuclear waste).

Given that the Yucca Mountain plan seems to be dead, it looks like the US will eventually have to go shopping for this technology in Europe of all places.