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More Funds For High-Risk R&D

APRA-E releases second round of grants, providing 
$106 million for 37 advanced technology energy projects

by Jeff Johnson
May 17, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 20

Credit: credit
OPX Biotechnologies biochemist Faith Watson prepares new media to develop biochemicals and biofuels from biomass, CO2, and hydrogen.
Credit: credit
OPX Biotechnologies biochemist Faith Watson prepares new media to develop biochemicals and biofuels from biomass, CO2, and hydrogen.

More than $100 million was recently awarded to 37 educational, government, and private consortia by the Department of Energy in its second round of high-risk technology research grants through the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program. These grants are intended to spur development and commercialization of new technologies that could fundamentally transform the way the U.S. uses and produces electricity, says DOE, which administers the program.

“These projects,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu said when announcing the grants in late April, “show the U.S. can lead the next Industrial Revolution in clean-energy technologies, which will help create new jobs and spur innovation and economic growth while helping to cut carbon pollution dramatically.”

However, despite Chu’s high hopes for the projects’ potential, these fledgling technologies need DOE support through ARPA-E; they carry risks so high that private investors are unwilling to support them, Chu says, particularly at the early stage of development.

This round’s winning projects are in three main areas: using electricity rather than photosynthesis to produce biofuels (13 projects worth $41.2 million); electric transportation battery technologies (10 projects worth $34.5 million); and technologies for capturing carbon from the emissions of coal-fired power plants (14 projects worth $30.6 million).

Most of the projects have several partners that include universities, companies, and even DOE labs. Looking only at each project’s lead recipient, 57% (21 projects) are run by educational institutions, 24% (nine projects) are led by small businesses, 11% (four projects) are directed by DOE national labs, and 8% (three projects) are led by large corporations. This round shows a shift from the first round, in which educational institutions led 38% of the projects, small companies directed 43%, and large corporations led 19%. Government labs were not allowed to lead first-round projects.

In this second round, Massachusetts Institute of Technology was the largest winning institution with four projects valued at $10.9 million; next came Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory with two projects and $7.6 million in total grants.

The projects are in some 17 states and vary in size from two at $6 million each to one at $543,000. One of the largest projects is led by OPX Biotechnologies of Boulder, Colo., which aims to develop an engineered microorganism that can produce a biodiesel-equivalent fuel from biomass, hydrogen, and carbon dioxide; the other is led by Boston’s Ginkgo BioWorks, which intends to use Escherichia coli to convert electrical energy and CO2 into alkanes and on to isooctane.

The smallest grant went to Columbia University to use engineered bacteria to produce isobutanol from CO2.

Chu has stressed his interest in reaching beyond traditional energy researchers in a search for new energy technologies, and DOE held up the example of Harvard Medical School, which won a $4 million grant to develop biofuels. The medical school intends to engineer a bacterium that is capable of absorbing electrical current and converting it, along with CO2, into chemical energy in the form of the biofuel octanol.

Another of the 37 projects DOE underscored is a continuation of an earlier department-funded project to capture CO2 from the flue gas of coal-fired electric power plants. Led by GE Global Research Center, the research team, which includes the University of Pittsburgh, has developed a technology that uses a liquid absorbent to capture CO2 and subsequently turn it into a powder. The powder can be heated, releasing CO2 that can be contained and returning the absorbent to liquid form for reuse. DOE says GE’s goal is to achieve a 90% rate of CO2 capture at a cost of 10% of the power plant’s electrical output, which is a far smaller parasitic load than systems being developed today.

DOE received 540 concept papers in this second round. Of these, 180 applicants were asked to prepare full proposals, which were reviewed by scientists in and out of the department and trimmed to the final 37 projects. ARPA-E officials and project staff are now negotiating details, and winners are working to raise and add the required 20 to 50% matching funds to the grant amount.

The ARPA-E program was established by Congress in 2007 but did not receive funding until a year ago when the Obama Administration provided $400 million for the program from the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009. During the first round of grants last year, DOE was swamped with 3,700 project applications and wound up funding 37 projects at $151 million (C&EN, Jan. 4, page 19).

ARPA-E has one more round of grants in the works, to be funded this summer. For this third round, $100 million will be provided to investigate grid-scale electricity storage technologies, advanced power converters, and advanced energy-efficiency cooling technologies. The agency is now assessing these project applications (C&EN, March 22, page 38).—Jeff Johnson



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