INSIGHT: Chemical firms, chemistry lead ‘breakthrough’ R&D

29 October 2009 16:44  [Source: ICIS news]

Chemistry leads in US breakthrough R&D energy awardsBy Joe Kamalick

WASHINGTON (ICIS news)--The US Department of Energy this week announced the first research and development (R&D) grants targeting “breakthrough” energy technologies - and chemical makers or chemical processes took the lion’s share.

DuPont, Nalco Chemical and ConocoPhillips were among 37 entities to share $151m (€101m) to pursue concepts that hopefully will produce “transformational” changes in energy.

In announcing the winning projects of a highly competitive vetting, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said that the common denominator is that each is potentially revolutionary - and so uncertain of success that they probably would not have attracted private funding.

“Yes, they are risky, and many of these technologies will not pan out,” Chu said.

“But this is high-risk, high reward research,” he said, adding: “If even one or two of these ideas become transformative technologies ... this will be among the best investments we’ve ever made.”

The three process industry firms, 19 other corporations and 15 university research centres were selected by the Department of Energy (DOE) from among some 3,700 applicants that submitted research proposals to the department in July. 

So only 1% of those applying made the cut.

The grant awards were selected by the department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, known as ARPA-E.

The agency was established by Congress to identify and fund paradigm-changing research and scientific applications that could bring major advances in energy generation, use or conservation.

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 data-sharing computer network that eventually became the Internet.

ARPA-E issued an invitation earlier this year for proposals that would pose “transformational” energy concepts.

“Transformational technologies” are defined by APRA-E as those that “disrupt the status quo” and are so significantly better than current technology as to trigger a paradigm shift in conventional operations and practice.

Among other qualifying criteria, the winning projects must be brought to fruition (or shutdown) within two years, three at the most.

DuPont’s Bio Architecture Lab was given a $9m grant - among the largest awarded - to pursue research toward production of bio-butanol from seaweed. The agency noted that “Seaweed is a potentially sustainable and scalable new source of biomass that doesn’t require arable land or potable water”.

Nalco was awarded $2.2m for further work on its electrochemical process for capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) using resin-wafer eletrodeionization. If successful, the process could remove CO2 from flue gas without energy intensive and costly conventional carbon-capture processes.

ConocoPhillips, along with research partners Archer Daniels Midland Company and Albemarle Corporation, was awarded $3.1m to advance a single-step biomass energy project.

According to ARPA-E, ConocoPhillips is developing a catalytic biomass pyrolysis process with a high carbon conversion efficiency to produce a stable bio-crude oil with low oxygen content.

“The approach combines pyrolysis oil production, stabilization and upgrading into one process,” ARPA-E said of the project.

Among the other winning R&D proposals was one by a company called 1366 Technologies, Inc., in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), to further development of “direct wafer technology”.

According to ARPA-E, the direct wafer technology seeks to form high-efficiency monocrystalline-equivalent silicon wafers directly from molten silicon, “with potential to halve the installed cost of solar photovoltaics”.

Exelus, Inc., was awarded funding to pursue a novel catalyst to convert the olefins in refinery off-gas, which typically is flared, into high-octane alkylate fuel. ARPA-E said the technology could generate 45m barrels of gasoline annually from a lost resource.

ITN Energy Systems, Inc., was given nearly $5m to further its work in solid-state electrochromic film on plastic substrates. The technology includes a roll-to-roll production process that would substantially reduce the cost of electrically controlled “smart” windows that reduce heating and cooling loads and minimize interior lighting demand in office buildings and other structures.

Pennsylvania State University and partner Sentech Corp. were funded $1.9m to develop catalyst-coated titanium dioxide nanotube membranes that could convert sunlight, carbon dioxide (CO2) and water into methane and other hydrocarbon fuels.

Porifera, Inc., in co-operation with the University of California at Berkeley, got slightly more than $1m for its work to integrate carbon nanotubes into polymer membranes. ARPA-E said the technique holds promise to increase the flux of CO2 capture membranes by two orders of magnitude and could greatly reduce the current cost of carbon capture from coal-fired power plants.

Perhaps the one R&D project among the 37 that is closest to fruition is an Ohio State University technology that uses syngas chemical looping (SCL) to convert coal or biomass into electricity while efficiently capturing CO2.

ARPA-E noted that the technology, developed with help from Shell and the Babcock and Wilcox Company, has successfully been demonstrated at laboratory scale and the $5m Energy Department grant will help fund construction of a pilot plant.

Several others among the 37 “breakthrough” R&D projects involve chemistry, chemical processes or polymers.

It is interesting and perhaps not surprising that one of the oldest technologies known to man - chemistry - remains so critical to our technological future.

 ($1 = €0.67)

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By: Joe Kamalick
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