Majumdar Picked To Lead ARPA-E | October 5, 2009 Issue - Vol. 87 Issue 40 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 87 Issue 40 | p. 32
Issue Date: October 5, 2009

Majumdar Picked To Lead ARPA-E

Energy Department research program is expected to ramp up with Berkeley lab engineer’s confirmation
Department: Government & Policy | Collection: Climate Change
Keywords: energy research, DOE, Majumdar

A Department of Energy lab division director; University of California, Berkeley, professor; and Indian immigrant Arun Majumdar was nominated last month by President Barack Obama to lead the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a recently created DOE research incubator.

Majumdar is currently director of the Environmental Energy Technologies Division of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a mechanical engineering and materials science professor at UC Berkeley. His relationship with the two institutions and his strong scientific interest in energy research and development mirror those of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, to whom he will directly report if confirmed by the Senate.

In his nomination statement, President Obama stressed Majumdar’s work in energy efficiency, renewable energy, and energy storage. He also underscored Majumdar’s ties to start-up companies and venture capital firms in Silicon Valley.

Obama has high hopes for ARPA-E to lead his push for a clean-energy economy, as he explained in April in a speech to the National Academy of Sciences (C&EN, May 4, page 7).

“The nation that leads the world in 21st-century clean energy will be the nation that leads in the 21st-century global economy,” Obama told the scientists. Drawing parallels to the Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is the model for ARPA-E, the President said ARPA-E will support high-risk, high-reward research to help bring about the greenhouse gas reductions and renewable energy technologies he seeks.

“We will make renewable energy the profitable kind of energy,” Obama said on April 27. “We will put in place the resources so that scientists can focus on this critical area. And I am confident that we will find a wellspring of creativity just waiting to be tapped by researchers in this room and entrepreneurs across our country.”

Majumdar received a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from UC Berkeley in 1989 and a B.Tech. in engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, in Bombay, in 1985. He has ties to Chinese and Indian researchers and universities, where he has formed partnerships to encourage energy efficiency and climate-change R&D and technology deployment.

Majumdar called his appointment a “rare privilege and honor.”

“I came to this country as an immigrant and am deeply appreciative and indebted to this nation for opening the doors and welcoming me with open arms. I have received so much. This is my way of stepping up and paying back,” Majumdar said in a statement.

ARPA-E has gotten off to a rough start. Congress created it in 2007, but its first significant funding came about in February through a two-year allocation of $400 million from the Obama Administration’s recovery act budget. Last April, DOE issued its first request for projects through ARPA-E. The solicitation sought to release $150 million.

Chu describes the program as fast moving and nimble, with the goal of breaking down “long-term, high-risk technological barriers” and fostering R&D of transformational energy-related technologies. The projects are to be high-risk, high-payoff technologies with the potential to transform the energy landscape.

Majumdar will have his work cut out for him. The response to the first solicitation was huge. Scientists offered some 3,500 concept papers, far outstripping expectations of project reviewers.

The 3,500 submissions were “pre-proposals,” DOE Undersecretary Kristina M. Johnson says. “About 10% of these applicants were encouraged to submit full proposals,” she tells C&EN, “and we have received about 300 full applications. These 300 are real ARPA-E-style transformational projects and have the ability to really move the technical clean-energy agenda forward.”

DOE plans to cull the 300 down to 30–50 projects that will receive grants ranging from $500,000 to $20 million, she says.

With the onslaught of applicants, DOE struggled to find sufficient numbers of reviewers. But Chu tells C&EN that the response to DOE’s search for proposal reviewers was great, and many qualified reviewers are now on board.

Last month, about 100 reviewers came to DOE’s Washington, D.C., offices, where they were split into three panels and began reviewing the 300 proposals, Johnson explains. “They read, discussed, and scored the proposals,” she says. “I visited all the panels, sat in a little bit, and was extremely impressed with high quality of technical discussion about these projects.”

The reviewers, Johnson says, “are the very best and leading technology experts from many fields, representing federal agencies, academia, the national labs, industries, and not-for-profits.”

By mid-fall, DOE will begin issuing funding announcements, Johnson says, and most grants will be in the $2 million to $3 million range. She would not describe the categories of finalist projects, other than to say they are “disruptive energy technologies.”

Johnson expects the second round of funding solicitation to take place next year, and the grants would be in the funding range of the first solicitation.

On Sept. 25, the comment period closed on another ARPA-E-related request—this one for public input to help guide DOE in selecting specific energy technology areas that are well-suited for ARPA-E funding in the future. DOE also intends to host workshops around the country to further hone the type of projects it will fund.

In early October, before finally releasing the first round of project funding, DOE will have yet another group of outside panelists from industry and academe look at the projects, Johnson says. “This is a new program, and we are being very deliberate.”

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