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ARPA-E to Fund $130 Million for New Energy R&D

Solar cells in the lab (Department of Energy)

(Department of Energy)

The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) announced the availability of funding of five new research areas in its fourth round of grants for new energy technologies. The projects to be funded will involve rare earth alternatives, biofuels, thermal storage, grid controls, and solar power electronics.

ARPA-E is modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) that conducts and funds high-risk/high reward R&D for Department of Defense. The agency focuses on creative and transformational energy research that industry by itself cannot undertake,  but where success offers benefits for the nation. ARPA-E is expected to fund between $10 million to $30 million in each of this round’s five project areas.

Rare earths are naturally-occurring minerals with unique magnetic properties that are used in many emerging energy technologies. The rare earths project is seeking early-stage technology alternatives that reduce or eliminate the dependence on rare earth materials by developing substitutes for electric vehicle motors and wind generators.

Technologies for low-cost production of advanced biofuels are limited by the small amount of available energy captured by photosynthesis and the inefficient processes used to convert plant matter to fuel. The Plants Engineered To Replace Oil (PETRO) project  aims to create plants that capture more energy from sunlight and convert that energy directly into fuels. ARPA-E seeks to fund technologies that boost the biochemical processes of energy capture and conversion to develop crops that deliver more energy per acre with less processing prior to the pump.

Advancements in thermal energy storage would improve performance for a variety of critical energy applications, since more than 90 percent of energy technologies involve the transport and conversion of thermal energy. ARPA-E is seeking thermal energy storage technologies for: 1) high temperature storage systems to deliver solar electricity more efficiently around the clock and allow nuclear and fossil baseload resources the flexibility to meet peak demand, 2) fuel produced from the sun’s heat, and 3) HVAC systems that use thermal storage to improve the driving range of electric vehicles by up to 40 percent.

The equivalent of 20 percent of electricity dollars is now lost to power outages and 30 percent of the grid’s hardware needs replacing. ARPA-E seeks to fund better control software and high-voltage hardware to reliably control the power grid for: 1) controls able to manage 10 times more sporadically available wind and solar electricity than currently on the grid, and 2) resilient power flow control hardware — the energy equivalent of an internet router — to enable more electricity to flow through the existing network of transmission lines.

ARPA-E’s portion of the Energy department’s Sunshot collaboration is the Solar ADEPT program — Agile Delivery of Electrical Power Technology — to better integrate advanced power electronics into solar panels and solar farms to more efficiently extract and deliver energy. In this project, ARPA-E aims to advance the areas of magnetics, semiconductor switches, and charge storage to reduce power conversion costs by up to 50 percent for utilities and 80 percent for homeowners.

Read more: Energy Dept. Awards Grants for University Tech. Commercialization

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