INSIGHT: New DOE high-tech research is heavy on chemistry

29 November 2012 16:39  [Source: ICIS news]

By Joe Kamalick

US DOE is funding search for energy breakthroughsWASHINGTON (ICIS)--The Energy Department’s high-tech research unit this week announced $130m (€100m) in funding for 66 cutting-edge projects to advance US energy development, with many of the selected technology goals focused on or dependent on chemistry.

The latest batch of grant awards was 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 research and development (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 its initial invitation for research funding in late 2009, and has since awarded $770m in grants and other funding to some 285 projects.

The goal, according to ARPA-E, is to provide funding for proposals that would pose “transformational” energy concepts and which otherwise might not attract private-sector venture capital.

“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. This ensures that there will be no long-running but ultimately fruitless undertakings that would continue to consume federal funding for decades.

Among the latest batch of 66 technology research projects was $602,000 to Bio2Electric of Princeton, New Jersey, to develop a small-scale reactor that converts natural gas into liquid transportation fuel by combining fuel cell technology with advanced catalysts.

“Conventional large-scale gas-to-liquid reactors produce waste-heat,” ARPA-E noted, “reducing the energy efficiency of the process.”

“In contrast, this reactor produces electricity as a by-product of fuel production,” the announcement said, adding: “If successful, this small-scale reactor could be deployed in remote locations to provide not only liquid fuel but also electricity, increasing the utility of geographically isolated gas reserves.”

Ceramatec, Inc, of Salt Lake City, Utah, was awarded $1.74m to work on a natural gas reactor for remote chemical conversion.

The company will use its ARPA-E funding to develop a small-scale membrane reactor to convert natural gas into transportable liquids in one step.

“Many remote oil wells burn natural gas as a by-product because it is not economical to store or transport,” ARPA-E noted. “Such natural gas contains energy that equals 20% of annual US electricity production” and “capturing this energy would reduce both waste and greenhouse gas emissions.”

The agency said that if the reactor proves practical, it could be deployed to remote areas to convert otherwise flared gas into usable chemicals that could be marketed.

The Gas Technology Institute (GTI) of Des Plaines, Illinois, was given slightly more than $770,000 to develop a new process to convert natural gas into methanol and hydrogen.

“Current methods to produce liquid fuels from natural gas require large and expensive facilities that use significant amounts of energy,” ARPA-E said. “GTI’s process uses metal oxide catalysts that are continuously regenerated in a reactor, similar to a battery.”

“This process operates at room temperature, is more energy efficient and less capital-intensive than existing methods,” the agency added.

Continuing its focus on converting natural gas – now more abundantly available in the US thanks to shale gas developments – ARPA-E said it would grant nearly $550,000 to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to develop a compact reformer for natural gas.

Reformers produce synthesis gas (syngas), the agency noted, as the first step in the commercial process of converting natural gas to liquid fuels.

But, “unlike other systems that are too large to be deployed remotely, MIT’s reformer could be used for small, remote sources of gas,” ARPA-E said.

Another major player, Pratt & Whitney-Rocketdyne (PWR), was given one of the larger grants, $3.8m, to work on yet another natgas-to-liquid fuels technology.

Canoga Park, California-based PWR’s approach, said ARPA-E, “would partially oxidize natural gas in the high-temperature, high-pressure combustor of a natural gas turbine, facilitating its conversion into a liquid fuel”.

“This approach could simultaneously improve the efficiency of gas conversion into fuels and chemicals, generating electricity in the process,” the agency said.

The University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was granted $1.8m to pursue research on flexible molecular sieve membranes. Those are ultra-thin separation membranes meant to improve the production of biofuels, plastics and other industrial materials.

“Today’s separation methods are energy intensive and costly,” ARPA-E noted. If the university’s work is successful and “if fully implemented by industry, such a new class of membranes could reduce US energy consumption by as much as 3%”, the agency said.

In another relatively large grant, the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington, was given $4m to advance development of a biocatalyst for small-scale conversion of natgas into diesel fuel.

This project, said ARPA-E, is aimed at developing microbes that convert the methane in natgas into liquid diesel fuel.

“These microbes enable small-scale gas-to-liquid conversion at lower cost than current methods, which require infrastructure that is too expensive to deploy at smaller scales,” the agency said, adding: “Small-scale conversion would leverage abundant, domestic natural gas resources and reduce US dependence on foreign oil.”

The ARPA-E research funding also delves into the coatings sector, giving $3m to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) in Berkeley, California, to develop low-cost coatings that control how light and heat enter buildings through windows.

“By individually blocking infrared (heat) and visible (light) components,” said the agency, LBNL’s research effort could “significantly enhance both the energy efficiency of buildings and the comfort of occupants”.

“These coatings,” said ARPA-E, “can be applied to windows using inexpensive techniques similar to spray-painting a car.”

Other chemicals-related projects included in the latest ARPA-E funding package focus on capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from power plants to electrochemically produce transportation fuels and industrial chemicals; converting sunlight, CO2 and water into fuels; and to increase the viscosity of liquid CO2 to improve performance of enhanced oil recovery and possibly replace water in hydraulic fracturing of shale gas and oil wells.

In addition to chemistry and natural gas, one of the recurring elements of the new ARPA-E research projects is the phrase “if successful”.

It is the nature of most if not all of the newly funded projects that they probably are more likely to fail than succeed – even though ARPA-E has sifted through thousands of proposals to find those most promising. 

If the funded research undertakings were slam-dunk, no-brainer, go-to technologies, they would quickly attract private sector funding and wouldn’t need ARPA-E’s helping hand.

But despite the likely high rate of failure, the research funding of ARPA-E could well unearth the next big thing – just as the 1960s DARPA led to the Internet, even if that game-changing development was incidental to the Defense Department’s actual research objectives.

The full list of the newly funded research projects is available at the ARPA-E website.

($1 = €0.77)

Paul Hodges studies key influences shaping the chemical industry in Chemicals and the Economy

By: Joe Kamalick
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