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DOE offers $100 million for far-out energy tech

The Department of Energy's ARPA-E program offers funds for high-risk, high-return energy research in fuels, carbon capture, and electric vehicle batteries.

The Department of Energy is making $100 million in government stimulus money available to researchers with ideas for radically different energy technologies.

The DOE on Monday announced the second portion of the ARPA-E program and said that "concept papers" for three research areas--fuels, capturing carbon dioxide from coal plants, and long-range electric vehicle batteries--are due by the middle of next January. Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke unveiled the green-tech research program in conjunction with the start of international climate treaty talks in Copenhagen, which got under way Monday.

One area that the DOE's ARPA-E program is offering research money for is making liquid fuels from microorganisms without biomass or oil. Start-up Joule Biotechnologies is a company that is already pursuing that path using sunlight, CO2, and genetically engineered microorganisms. Joule Biotechnologies

The research areas reflect the priorities of the administration for jump-starting innovation in the energy industry for both environmental and economic reasons. The three projects topics are called:

• Innovative Materials & Processes for Advanced Carbon Capture Technologies (IMPACCT). This program will seek to fund research in materials and catalysts to separate carbon dioxide from other flue gases at coal-fired power plants. With about half of the electricity in the U.S. made from burning coal, developing more energy-efficient and cost-effective technologies for carbon capture and sequestration is getting significant federal backing. On Friday the Department of Energy announced that $3.18 billion of stimulus money will be spent on accelerating the development of three carbon capture projects in the U.S.

• Batteries for Electrical Energy Storage in Transportation (BEEST) is a project aimed at developing battery technology that will extend the range beyond today's existing lightweight electric vehicles. There are a number of electric vehicles coming to market in the next year, such as the Nissan Leaf, but the driving range is limited to about 100 miles because of the limitations in battery energy density.

• The Electrofuels program at ARPA-E is seeking to fund research for methods of making liquid transportation fuels directly from carbon dioxide and sunlight. The program specifies that it is looking for methods that use biological processes using microorganisms, an area of research that could yield a 10 times efficiency improvement over traditional biofuels.

The first grant awards for DARPA-E, totaling $151 million, also went to research projects in liquid fuels and carbon capture but also included energy storage, LED lighting, and solar photovoltaics.