09 November 2009 00:00 [Source: ICB]
THE US Department of Energy (DoE) has announced the first research and development (R&D) grants targeting "breakthrough" energy technologies - and chemical producers and chemical processes took the biggest share.
In announcing the winning projects of a highly competitive vetting, US Energy Secretary Steven Chu said 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," he said. "But this is high-risk, high reward research. If even one or two of these ideas become transformative technologies, this will be among the best investments we've ever made."
The 37 recipients were selected by the DoE from among some 3,700 applicants that submitted research proposals in July.
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 coordinate 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 program and development of ARPANET, a multi-institutional data-sharing computer network that eventually became the Internet.
"Transformational technologies" are defined by APRA-E as those that "disrupt the status quo" and are so superior to current technology as to trigger a paradigm shift in conventional operations and practice.
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 biobutanol 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 electrodeionization. If successful, the process could remove CO2 from flue gas without energy-intensive and costly conventional carbon-capture processes.
ConocoPhillips, along with US research partners agriculture giant Archer Daniels Midland and specialty chemical firm Albemarle, 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.
Among the other winning R&D proposals was one by a solar material company called 1366 Technologies, 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."
Cleantech firm Exelus received funding to pursue a novel catalyst to convert the olefins in refinery off-gases, which typically are flared, into high-octane alkylate fuel. ARPA-E said the technology could generate 45m bbl/year of gasoline from a lost resource.
Advanced technologies firm ITN Energy Systems 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.
Pennsylvania State University and partner cleantech firm Sentech were given $1.9m to develop catalyst-coated titanium dioxide nanotube membranes that could convert sunlight, CO2 and water into methane and other hydrocarbon fuels.
Perhaps the one R&D project among the 37 that is closest to fruition is an Ohio State University technology that uses synthesis gas (syngas) chemical looping to convert coal or biomass into electricity while efficiently capturing CO2.
ARPA-E noted that the technology, developed with help from Shell and Babcock and Wilcox, has successfully been demonstrated at laboratory scale and the $5m grant will help fund construction of a pilot plant.
It is interesting and perhaps not surprising that one of the oldest technologies known to man - chemistry - remains so critical to our technological future.
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