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DOE places bets on 'transformative' energy tech

The Department of Energy announces $151 million worth of research grants for ARPA-E, an agency created to fund breakthroughs in clean-energy technology.

The Department of Energy on Monday named the first winners of a program aimed at generating breakthroughs in clean-energy technologies.

The program, called Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), began taking applications earlier this year for research ideas that reduce imports of foreign fuel, cut greenhouse gas emissions, and improve energy efficiency. Funding for the agency is part of the Obama administration's goal to improve the economic competitiveness of the U.S. by investing in energy technology.

The DOE is awarding $151 million in 37 grants to both academics and green-tech companies, most of which are start-ups. The ideas are meant to be high-risk and high-reward, with a number not expected to meet their goals.

Authority to create the agency, roughly modeled on the DARPA defense program that spawned the space race, happened in 2007 but it wasn't funded until earlier this year. ARPA-E now has authority to fund as much as $400 million in research. A second tranche of grant awardees is scheduled to be announced later this fall.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Martin LaMonica/CNET

The naming of ARPA-E grants is being closed watched in the green-tech start-up community and among researchers. There were 3,600 concept papers submitted, followed by 300 full applications and ultimately 37 awardees.

One awardee is an effort at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to make an all-liquid battery, which would make storage of storage of solar and wind power more cost effective.

Another is funding for a bioreactor developed by the University of Minnesota that proposes using two microorganisms to make a vehicle fuel. One bacteria would convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into a sugar, and another would convert the sugar into a fuel.

Two other efforts include developing enzymes that would more effectively capture carbon dioxide from power plants and a low-cost material for making LED lighting. The full list of awardees is at the ARPA-E site (click for PDF).

Energy Secretary Steven Chu is scheduled to speak at Google Monday morning in Google to make an announcement, after which Google CEO Eric Schmidt will speak with Chu. Through its philanthropic arm, Google has invested in a number of renewable energy companies. It has also developed Web-based energy monitoring software for consumers.