It has been six years since the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy—or ARPA-E— opened for business and while it hasn’t always been easy for the government-funded innovation agency to find solid footing, it finally seems to be hitting its stride. Rumblings from congressional Republicans who were eager to gut the agency’s budget in a display of fiscal belt-tightening two years ago have dissipated, as most members of both political parties—not to mention the president of the United States—understand that American competitiveness and innovation help to drive the economy.
The Senate in December confirmed the agency’s second permanent director, Ellen Williams, a former chief scientist for BP who is on a leave of absence from the University of Maryland. Williams has served as a distinguished professor in the university’s physics department and the Institute for Physical Science and Technology since 2000. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said Williams will help to expand ARPA-E’s portfolio, hopefully leading to more groundbreaking technologies that can fuel innovation and inject new vitality into the private marketplace.
“Ellen Williams will provide outstanding leadership based upon her combination of world-class research in condensed matter physics and insight into how technology impacts the energy marketplace,” Moniz said in a statement after her Senate confirmation. “I’m excited to work with Ellen on expanding the scope and impact of ARPA-E.”
So, what does ARPA-E do, exactly? Modeled after DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) ARPA-E funds promising, cutting-edge energy technologies that are typically too early for private-sector investment. From new wind turbine designs and transportation fuels made from bacteria to innovative energy storage solutions and smaller, more efficient semiconductors, ARPA-E projects aim to improve the way we generate, store and use energy.
Since its formation, at least 30 ARPA-E project teams have formed new companies to advance their technologies and more than 37 ARPA-E projects have expanded to include other government agencies for further development, according to DOE. Nearly three dozen ARPA-E projects have attracted more than $850 million in private-sector investment. DOE reports that to date, ARPA-E has spent approximately $1.1 billion across more than 400 projects through 23 focused programs and two open funding solicitations. About a third of the teams are from universities, a third from businesses and roughly another third are non-profit organizations, which include the national laboratories.
In an interview with Innovation, Williams said she was excited about the opportunity to lead the agency and sounded almost giddy about the possibilities. She grew up in Michigan, a stronghold of American manufacturing, and is confident that American technology and initiative will remain among the best in the world, despite sometimes dire predictions to the contrary.
“I’ve seen the evolution and impact that changing technology has had and I just have no doubt that a strong technical infrastructure and a very, very strong innovation base is essential to the strength of the United States,” she said. “ARPA-E really plays a unique, or important, role in America’s innovation infrastructure in the energy space.”
Asked about ARPA-E priorities, Williams said the sky is the limit. The very nature of the agency is to aim for technologies that lead to important breakthroughs in energy. She said ARPA-E is heavily focused on battery storage technologies for both vehicles and power grid storage.
“Our big picture is very big,” she said. “We still absolutely have a big focus on batteries, but we’ve built on what we’ve learned from our other battery programs. We really understand now some of the issues that might prevent batteries from being taken up and used as effectively as they might be. We have a whole bunch of new programs on batteries that are honing in on key points where there might be technical blockages or opportunities to change the trajectory in a way that really enables more battery uses by making them more effective or more cost attractive.”
Heat capture is another area in which ARPA-E project teams are putting their focus.“It presents such an opportunity,” she said, “because so much of the energy that we use—our primary energy—is lost as heat and there are so many opportunities to capture more and more of that heat and basically get more benefits for the energy we are using anyway.”
Carbon capture, or containing carbon dioxide emissions, and biomass, which refers to organic matter that has stored energy through the process of photosynthesis, are other scientific realms that have piqued ARPA-E’s interest. “We had a really good carbon capture program called Impact and quite a few of its programs met our technical goals and were picked up by the Department of Energy’s fossil programs,” she said. “Some of them have gone into demonstration phases and we’re really excited about that.”
Carbon emissions, which accelerate climate change, are a key target of America’s innovation community, Williams said. “As we go out and ask the American community of scientists and engineers to give us their best ideas we continue to get ideas about carbon capture and utilization,” she said. “We are continuing to have new programs come in as we see new opportunities to have a greater impact.”
Williams explained how ARPA-E’s project teams work. “A project team is a group we fund to develop an idea,” she said. “They write a proposal and we fund it. We encourage teams to bring together people of different capabilities, especially if you’ve got academics that have a million technical ideas. We might encourage them to pair up with somebody from the business world and maybe someone who has some real marketing skills. We require all of our teams to spend some of their funding on tech-to-market development.”
As an example, Williams talks about how a Harvard scientist had spent her career researching how the biological world makes “incredibly neat, high-functioning materials” and figuring out how that might be translated to the commercial world. The scientists and her colleagues had observed small animals and microorganisms that are very efficient at shedding or repelling water.
“They came to us with an idea for a low-friction coating,” she said. “Friction is a big deal when it comes to energy loss. Our tech-to-market team worked with them from the beginning and we looked at what would be the biggest market impact for low-friction coating.”
As it turned out, the first and easiest application was for cooling coils in freezers. “They cover up with frost and you lose your cooling efficiency, but the team developed their low friction coating and it’s gangbusters at keeping things cool,” Williams said. “For me, that is just the most amazing example of coming out of something you would never have thought would be economically viable or practical. It’s just an amazing application.”
Williams said ARPA-E employs about 15 to 20 program managers at any one time and they are all on limited term appointments of three to four years. “ARPA-E is all about change, all about innovation. We need to have people coming in with fresh ideas,” she said. “Our program directors work really