DOE's Chu looks to past for energy breakthroughs

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu announces grant money for improved building efficiency and to develop grid storage to complement wind and solar.

NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland--Energy Secretary Steven Chu sees the solutions to today's energy challenges in the work of scientists in decades past.

Chu delivered the opening keynote here Tuesday at the first ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit, where he used examples of historic technology breakthroughs as the model for making new discoveries in clean energy. The Department of Energy is seeking to re-create the structure of research that yielded great technology jumps, such as the precursor of the Internet or the laser.

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said Tuesday that the federal government is trying to give innovation a kick-start reminiscent of the Manhattan Project or MIT's Lincoln Laboratory. Martin LaMonica/CNET

ARPA-E, which stands for Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, was funded for the first time last year. Its goal is to create breakthrough energy technologies on a relatively short time-scale. So far, ARPA-E has awarded $151 million in grants to companies and academic institutions, touching on a wide range of areas, including electric vehicles and underground storage of carbon dioxide.

On Tuesday, Chu announced that the ARPA-E is now taking solicitations for grid storage technologies to complement wind and solar energy, which are intermittent sources that can cause a significant drop in electricity flow in the grid.

"If you want renewable energy to be 30 or 40 or 50 percent (of power generation), you need much better energy transmission and much better energy storage," he said. "It is absolutely essential for renewable energy."

He also announced that ARPA-E has set up a program to fund development of air conditioners that are three times more energy efficient than today's machines. As people in the developing world purchase air conditioners, the question of efficiency becomes much more important, he said.

In addition, ARPA-E is offering grants to companies and researchers to develop chips for efficient power electronics, which can be used for a variety of application such as microinverters on solar panels, wind turbine generators, or solid-state lighting. Because many of the "best minds" in electrical engineering in the past years went into microelectroncis for computers, there is a skills shortage in this area, Chu said.

Unapologetic nerd
During his talk, Chu outlined the structure the DOE is seeking to establish in order to speed an "industrial revolution" that decreases dependence on foreign oil, creates new jobs, and addresses global warming.

Some programs are set up to fund fundamental research and others are geared at demonstration projects that seek to make improvements on existing technologies, such as batteries for grid storage.

ARPA-E is structured around very specific projects with a short time-scale, he said. In addition, the DOE has created what Chu calls "Bell Lablets" where groups of academics from different disciples are focused on a single task, such as advanced biofuels or building efficiency.

The history of scientific breakthrough shows that giving talented people a specific focus but freedom to work on cutting-edge technology leads to innovation in science, he said. After World War II, for example, researchers set off to make improvements on radar, which ultimately led to the development of lasers. Improvements on that eventually led to the creation of the first transistor at Bell Labs.

"We're trying to upturn innovation but in a time scale and effort reminiscent of the Manhattan Project or Lincoln Labs," he said.

Updated on March 4 at 1:10 pm PT with corrected figure for ARPA-E grant awards to date.


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