INSIGHT: US gets 3,500 bids to leap-frog energy technology

16 July 2009 16:44  [Source: ICIS news]

By Joe Kamalick

Some 3,500 energy R&D proposals flood US Energy DeptWASHINGTON (ICIS news)--The US Department of Energy (DOE) has been swamped by some 3,500 proposals for $150m (€108m) in funding to stimulate game-changing technical advances in power efficiency, to reduce foreign oil imports and cut carbon emissions - and make big bucks doing it.

In the halls of Congress and other corridors of power in Washington, $150m is chump-change, hardly worth a financial footnote in a $3,500bn federal budget.

But those 3,500 first-draft proposals may well include a few score research and development (R&D) projects that could do more to advance US energy resources and reduce emissions than the $2,000bn cap-and-trade climate bill that Congress is considering.

The proposals - short, eight-page “concept papers” - are in response to the first funding opportunity under the department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, known as ARPA-E.

That new DOE office was created by Congress under the Bush administration in August 2007 but was funded by the Obama White House as part of the $787bn economic stimulus bill approved in February this year. ($150m is not quite 0.0002% of that $787bn package.)

ARPA-E is patterned on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) established by the US Defense Department in 1958 to stimulate and co-ordinate academic, commercial and military R&D in national security and space exploration, among other goals. 

Among results of that 1960s-era effort was the US space programme and development of DARPA-net, a multi-institutional and country-wide data and information-sharing computer network that eventually became the Internet.

The ARPA-E objective is to stimulate the kind of paradigm-changing research and scientific application that helped put a man on the Moon and triggered the exponential expansion of science and knowledge that is in part reflected by the Internet and the World Wide Web. 

(The Internet and the Web are of course world-changing developments or a demonic curse, depending on how you feel about e-mail, the 24/7 business day, virtually instant global communications and FaceBook.)

If this first response from the US industrial, scientific and academic communities is any measure, ARPA-E is off to a galloping start.

The DOE said that the 3,500 initial proposals far exceeded expectations, and the department is scrambling to get the eight-page concept papers reviewed by qualified scientists across the country by the end of July.

That is when ARPA-E will invite the most meritorious applicants to expand their concept papers into full, formal proposals, which will be due at DOE by the end of August.

There’s no telling how many will be invited to submit full R&D proposals. Funding grants are to be in the range of $500,000 to $20m; that could mean as many as 300 projects or as few as seven or eight. It is probable that the department will fund fewer than 100, perhaps far fewer.

However, all of the invited full proposals are to represent “transformational” energy research, according to the department.

“Transformational technologies are by definition technologies that disrupt the status quo,” DOE said in announcing the call for papers.

“They are not merely better than current technologies, they are significantly better,” the invitation specifies. “Often, a technology is considered transformational when it so outperforms current approaches that it causes an industry to shift its technology base to the new technology.”

The department said it cannot characterise the initial 3,500 proposals or describe any of them - partly because DOE staffers and private-sector scientists are still wading through them - but chiefly because ARPA-E is supposed to maintain strict impartiality in the selection process. 

We may learn more about the direction and focus of the cutting-edge energy R&D effort when the full proposals arrive at DOE at the end of August.

Because of ARPA-E’s funding mandate, there likely will be no wacko proposals, no fringe ideas along the lines of lets-build-a-big-rubber-band. 

Those submitting formal bids for some of the $150m funding will be required to put up at least 20% of their proposed R&D project’s cost. So proposals must be sufficiently innovative and technically enticing as to attract private sector investment - no easy task in the current economy.

The ARPA-E programme also is significant because - unlike the monstrous $2,000bn cap-and-trade climate and energy bill now floundering in Congress - it does not pick winners and losers among technologies and energy resources.

The statute (Public Law 110-69) directs ARPA-E to fund promising advances in energy technology “used for fossil energy, carbon sequestration, nuclear energy, renewable energy, energy distribution or energy efficiency”.

And, equally important, ARPA-E must help “maintain US leadership in the development and deployment of energy technologies”.

DOE fully expects that the $150m in funds it is putting into this project will be repaid when the winning technologies go commercial and generate profits from global energy markets.

($1 = €0.72)

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By: Joe Kamalick
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