Mad Scientists: The Crazy Ideas That Just Might Save the World

By Matt Baker

After the launch of Sputnik in 1957, the United States government believed that the Soviet Union had not only leapfrogged them technologically, but had become a grave threat. This resulted in the creation of a federal research and development arm—the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, later DARPA). Defense research efforts under this agency resulted in the unmanned Predator drone currently at work in Afghanistan and Iraq, the F-117 stealth fighter and most notably, ARPANET, the predecessor to the Internet.

While militaristic threats have certainly not gone away in the years since DARPA’s creation, new threats have been identified. To combat the effects of global warming, reliance on fossil fuels and inefficient energy technologies, Congress recently created the Advanced Research for Projects Agency-Energy or ARPA-E.

It is not in name only that this new agency was modeled after DARPA. Like its defense counterpart, ARPA-E will make use of the country’s research assets—universities, commercial, industrial, and investor communities, as well as national labs—to pursue high-risk, high-reward research that none of these groups would likely pursue on their own.

ARPA-E will be an independent, non-bureaucratic entity within the Department of Energy (DOE). Congress granted the agency the flexibility to recruit and hire the nation’s best and brightest from outside the governement, as well as the freedom to sponsor research and development spanning multiple stages and disciplines. Program Managers will have autonomy and resources to pursue high-risk pathways, and the freedom to assemble research teams to “crash” on projects that show high promise.

Though created in 2007, ARPA-E was without a budget until February 2009 when $400 million of the economic stimulus bill was set aside. This is one area in which the new agency and its model drastically diverge; DARPA’s budget last year was over $3 billion.

Arun Majumdar, former deputy director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, was appointed as APRA-E’s first director. “Our nation’s history is replete with examples of pioneers and entrepreneurs who took risks,” said Majumdar in a statement on the agency’s website. “These innovators often failed initially, but quickly learned from those failures.”

And risks ARPA-E shall take. One of the projects the agency has agreed to fund is an electrolysis system to split water into its base hydrogen and oxygen components using only solar energy. Splitting water is a high-energy endeavor, so it will be interesting to see how this project advances. Another project given the green light is an innovative technology to bioengineer crops with enzymes that degrade cell walls within the plant after harvest, dramatically reducing the cost of cellulosic biofuels.

Biofuels are featured in many proposals. Other projects offered funding include one for a seaweed-derived fuel, an efficient process for harvesting biofuel from algae and engineered bacteria that secrete fuel in their fatty acids. It is unlikely that in fifty years, algae, bacteria, enzyme and seaweed energy companies will be vying for market share. All of these might be commercially feasible or none of them. They could be combined with each other or other projects for some novel project.

For the construction industry, several projects are in development. One technology that’s been around for a while but cost-prohibitive to commercialization is “smart glass.” Coated in an electrochromic film, this glass can, for instance alter its transparency for the most efficient solar gain on exterior windows. A cheap solid-state electrochromic film would not only drop the cost of new smart glass windows, retrofitting old windows could be as easy as applying a thin film.

The light emitting diode (LED) has been heralded as the incandescent killer for years, but LED bulbs are currently still very expensive with an average cost of around $50 each. At 60,000 operation hours versus the 1,500 you might get from an incandescent, they are already the better option, but most consumers can’t get past that exorbitant initial cost. That high cost is due to the need for gallium nitride crystal and other expensive materials in the manufacture of LEDs. One project ARPA-E has funded would create affordable, high quality, single crystal substrates at high growth rates with a price comparable to the incandescent.

ARPA-E issued its first request for proposals last May. This generated 3,700 concept papers and over 300 full proposals, 37 of which were selected for funding. Relative to many other federal agencies, ARPA-E’s is meager. The result is an acceptance of only 1% of proposals optioned for funding. “ARPA-E ought to be selective and fund the most game-changing ideas with significant levels of financial support,” said Majumdar, “so that after the projects are completed, the technologies are ready to be adopted by the other stakeholders.” The agency also plans to highlight proposals that did not receive grant money, in hopes that the researchers behind the ideas can be connected with other DOE departments or with private funding.

On March 2, ARPA-E announced the availability of a further $100 million in Recovery Act grant money. “This is about unleashing the American innovation machine to solve the energy and climate challenge,” said Nobel physicist and U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, “while creating new jobs, new industries and new exports for America’s workers.”

The United States certainly owes its global military superiority to the initiatives of the research conducted under DARPA. As the nation—and the world—face new threats, it is the hope that ARPA-E will have a similar impact.

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