Energy Embattled Research Arm Places $100M for ‘Transformational’ Projects

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Despite an air of uncertainty coming from the Trump administration, the Department of Energy’s research arm is forging ahead with what it calls “transformational research,” putting up $100 million to try to ensure that it doesn’t miss a trick when it comes to potentially disruptive energy research.

The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) Dec. 13 announcement represents the latest from a three-year cycle of proposals, and discusses up to $100 million in funding under its OPEN program to support “projects outside the scope of existing ARPA-E focused programs.”

ARPA-E, which was launched in 2009, funds the development of high-risk, high-reward energy technologies in their nascent stages, before they are likely to draw investment from the private sector. Technologies that show promise, based on development research and feedback from external stakeholders, are absorbed into the agency’s focused programs. The agency’s focused programs represent those initiatives that have a possible, positive impact on the agency’s mission areas.

The White House and Congress have been at odds over ARPA-E’s very existence, with the administration’s 2018 budget request proposing to shut down the agency–a request that came just after Congress had approved giving ARPA-E a budget of $306 million. Earlier this year, the department froze contracts totaling $11 million for three ARPA-E programs, and although it released those funds in May after opposition from Congress, a Government Accountability Office report released December 12 said DOE broke the law in withholding the money.

Regardless, the OPEN program is continuing, even if funding levels have dipped in recent iterations. Roughly every three years–starting with ARPA-E’s inception in 2009, and again in 2012, and 2015, and now for 2018–the agency has announced an OPEN funding opportunity to “ensure that the agency does not miss opportunities to support innovative energy R&D that falls outside of the topics of the focused technology programs or that develop after focused solicitations have closed,” the agency said.

The first OPEN program drew about 3,700 concept papers and settled on 41 projects that received a total of $176 million in Federal funding. The projects selected included cost-effective silicon wafers for solar cells, high-octane fuel from refinery exhaust gas, and separate projects for turning algae and bacteria into fuel. OPEN 2012 spread $179 million across 66 projects, including converting carbon dioxide into fuel and chemicals, a high-efficiency solar fuel reactor, and customized devices for turning tidal power into energy. OPEN 2015 saw a reduction in funding, but still put $120 million into 39 projects ranging from a new option for wind energy and biofuel from kelp to virtual building-energy audits. The deadline for submissions under the latest OPEN round is February 12, 2018.

In funding transformational research, ARPA-E is continuing a tradition of government-funded research pioneered by agencies such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and NASA.

ARPA-E acknowledges that the commercial marketplace is where the viability of energy technologies is settled, but notes that new technologies need time to incubate before they can pay off. “The mere creation of a new learning curve does not ensure market penetration,” the agency states in its funding announcement. ARPA-E’s R&D projects start out with cost and performance ratios that would not be competitive, and a lot of them will fail, but those that prove to be disruptive could replace existing technologies and even create new markets. “ARPA-E understands that definitive proof of market disruption takes time, particularly for energy technologies,” the agency said. “Therefore, ARPA-E funds the development of technologies that, if technically successful, have the clear disruptive potential” to be cost effective and widely used.

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