The Case for ARPA-E
Following are excerpts from Dr. Chu's testimony in March before the Committee on Science of the House of Representatives regarding the creation of ARPA-E, the Advanced Research Projects Agency—€”Energy.
We live in a truly magical time. With the flick of a finger, the power of 10 horses flows from a small wire in the wall of our homes to clean our carpets. We go to the local market under the pull of hundreds of horses and fly across our continent with tens of thousands of them. Our homes are warm in the winter, cool in the summer and lit at night. We live well beyond the dreams of Roman emperors.
What has made all of this possible is our ability to exploit abundant sources of energy. The worldwide consumption of energy has nearly doubled between 1970 and 2001. By 2025, it is expected to triple. The extraction of oil, our most precious energy source, is predicted to peak sometime in 10 to 40 years, and most of it will be gone by the end of this century. What took hundreds of millions of years for nature to make will have been consumed in 200 years.
We have abundant forms of fossil fuel such as coal, shale oil, and tar sands that will last for hundreds of years. However, in my opinion, if the world substantially increases the generation of greenhouse gases by relying heavily on fossil fuels, we run the risk of causing disruptive climate change.
The nation needs to develop clean, safe, secure and sustainable energy for three reasons:
—€ Our energy security is directly linked to national security.
—€ Economic competitiveness is intimately tied to how much energy costs, and how efficiently it is used.
—€ There are serious environmental concerns associated with energy usage from local pollution to climate change.
Because of these concerns, I believe that the energy problem is the single most important problem that has to be solved by science and technology in the coming decades. At present, there appear to be no magic bullets to solve the energy problem. While efficiencies play a huge role in defining how much energy we consume, we must also have a diversified portfolio of investments to develop sustainable sources of energy.
The committee that developed the report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, included amongst its 20 recommended action steps, the establishment of the Advanced Research Projects Authority—€”Energy (ARPA-E). The committee intends ARPA-E to provide a new field of opportunity to the Department of Energy as it works to develop new technologies to supply this nation and the world with safe, clean, affordable, secure and sustainable energy. We simply must find energy supplies that will not degrade our environment. If we do not do this, there will be no future prosperity. We must take concerted action and make the investments necessary to enlist our most talented researchers and innovators. Our committee, therefore, conceived ARPA-E as an organization reporting to the DOE Under Secretary for Science that can achieve four objectives:
1. Bring a freshness, excitement, and sense of mission to energy research that will attract many of our best and brightest minds—€”those of experienced scientists and engineers, and, especially, those of students and young researchers, including those in the entrepreneurial world.
2. 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.
3. Utilize an ARPA-like organization that is flat, nimble, and sparse, capable of sustaining for long periods of time those projects whose promise remains real, while phasing out programs that do not prove to be as promising as anticipated.
4. Create a new tool to bridge the gap between basic energy research and development/industrial innovation.
The agency would itself perform no research, but would fund work conducted by universities, startups, established firms and national laboratories. Although the agency would be focused on energy issues, it is expected that its work (like that of Defense Advanced Research Projects Authority (DARPA) or NIH) will have important spin-off benefits, including aiding in the education of the next generation of researchers.
Another goal of ARPA-E is to bring teams of the best researchers across departments and schools to get the best results for the nation. ARPA-E would provide an incentive to encourage the best and brightest researchers to pursue more applied work than they would normally pursue. It could also serve as a model for how to improve the transfer of science and technology research in other areas that are essential to our future prosperity.
The committee considered several models before deciding to focus on energy and to use DARPA as a template—€¦If ARPA-E is successful, then technology transition will be from the research laboratory to small and large companies, not into the government.
Funding for ARPA-E would start at $300 million the first year and increase to $1 billion per year over 5-6 years, at which point the program's effectiveness would be evaluated and any appropriate actions taken. In funding ARPA-E, it is critical that its funding not jeopardize the basic research supported by the Department of Energy's Office of Science. The committee's recommendations are prioritized and its top recommendation in the area of research is to increase the funding for basic research by 10 percent per year over the next seven years—€¦
Some examples of what ARPA-E might fund include:
1. The development of a new class of solar cells. Photovoltaic solar cells using semiconductor technology can be very efficient at converting sunlight into electrical energy, but the fabrication cost remains too high. Organic and polymer solar cells can be made at low cost, but the efficiencies are low and existing materials degrade in sunlight. One promising avenue towards inexpensive, efficient and long-lasting solar cells is to create novel materials based on multiple elements that can be manufactured with thin-film technologies. Another approach is to create nano-particle devices (distributed junction solar cells) that use different nanostructures for the conversion of sunlight into charge carriers and for the collection of those charges onto electrodes.
2. Biomass substitutes for oil. The ethanol for transportation is currently produced from sugar cane, corn or other plants. However, the most cost-effective bio-fuels will come from the conversion of cellulose into chemical fuel. When the fuel is burned, CO2 is released into the atmosphere, but the overall cycle can, in principle, be carbon neutral. The creation of crops raised for energy will also take full advantage of our great agricultural capacity.
ARPA-E can fund the creation of new plants to be grown for energy by incorporating a number of genes that are introduced into plants. Recently, a team of scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory inserted many genes into bacteria to produce an extremely effective anti-malarial drug. The Gates Foundation has given this team a $42 million grant to commercialize the technology so that the drug can be made available to the developing world.
Similar technology can be used to make plants self-fertilizing and drought and pest resistant. Note that about 25 percent of the energy input in growing corn comes from fertilizer, which is made from ammonia derived from natural gas.
Research on more efficient conversion of cellulose into liquid fuel would also yield great dividends. Current methods use the high temperature/ high acid processes that are very energy intensive. The breakdown of cellulose into ethanol is also accomplished with bacteria or fungi, but this process can be made much more efficient if the micro-organisms are modified with these methods—€¦.
The potential payoff of ARPA-E through engaging new researchers, exciting a new generation to confront the looming energy crisis, and operating with an agility to involve scientists and engineers who otherwise might not contribute to meeting our energy and environmental challenges is great. ARPA-E can be goal-oriented, flexible, yet possible to start, stop and sustain programs and projects according to their promise and performance.