The future is now

The Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-e) is a new branch of the US Department of Energy designed to fund and support early stage, potentially transformational energy technologies. The Agency was funded by the stimulus bill in 2009 and this week it’s showing off its successes at an Energy Innovation Summit in Washington, DC. If you’re an energy geek, this is some far out, awesome stuff.

Many companies and technologies are being showcased. Earth2Tech has a good overview. I’ll highlight just a couple of my favorites:
PolyPlus. Water batteries. Yes, you read that right, water batteries. And, maybe one day, air batteries. The PolyPlus technology uses lithium as the negative electrode, which is carefully protected so as to separate it from water, the positive electrode. A variety of technological advances make this possible and also give the battery an extremely high energy density (3 to 4 times that of a normal lithium ion battery). While the technology is not yet at a commercial stage, it promises to have many applications in both marine environments and elsewhere.
Foro Energy. Laser drills are the focus of Foro Energy. The drill technology allows the transmission of high power lasers over fiber optic cables and could be a real game changer in the geothermal power space, where drilling wells is a slow, expensive process that often keeps projects from being developed.
Phononic. Phononic’s technology takes a new approach to a puzzle that has a huge amount of potential in a wide variety of industries. Figuring out how to usefully convert low-grade “waste” heat into power could improve the operational efficiency of everything from power plants to data centers. If it proves cost effective, expect this technology to start popping up all over the place.

While all of these companies are some way from being commercial; while all need more money, and many might fail, it’s exciting to see these kinds of innovations on the horizon. It’s also encouraging to see DOE stepping up to support technological R&D that is, in many cases, just too risky for the private sector. I’m very excited to see what other things come out of ARPA-e in the next few years.

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