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Where federal energy research money should go

The Energy Department's new ARPA-E program aims to find "transformational energy technologies" beyond fossil fuels. Here are some offbeat ideas on how it could get started.

The U.S Department of Energy on Monday launched a $400 million program to fund development of disruptive energy technologies in a program modeled after the Department of Defense program that spawned space exploration and the Internet.

Called Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), the mission is to fund research and development on "transformational energy technologies" to cut the country's reliance on fossil fuels. The Energy Department's ARPA-E office will start taking applications next month for research projects, which will be accepted based on their technical feasibility and potential commercial impact.

Only bold, high-risk ideas need apply, according to the Energy Department, and President Obama has even likened this research to the space race of the 1960s--only it will be harder. "Only truly transformational technologies that can contribute greatly to the ARPA-E's Mission Areas have any chance of funding. We are not looking for incremental progress on current technologies," according to the Energy Department's solicitation document.

So where should this money go? While it's impossible to say what specific programs could land a slice of the ARPA-E funding, there are significant categories that don't generate many headlines but bear watching beyond more established green technologies:

Making solar power cheap
Using the sun to power our world makes sense because it is a massive and free source of energy. But how do you capture it cheaply?

There are thousands of people working on this very problem in myriad ways. For a breakthrough, many scientists have said we need solar power to be as cheap as applying a coat of paint. Some are actually trying to do this. New Scientist reports on researchers in the U.K. who are doing this using dye-based solar cells sprinkled into paint.

The key here, as in so many energy-related endeavors, is the material. Right now, solar cells are made from silicon, which is abundant but expensive, or other chemical combinations. But there's a field of research and development around organic solar cells made from relatively cheap polymers. IBM and Harvard, for example, last year launched a project to pinpoint which are the chemical compounds with the most potential for converting sunlight into electricity.

Some researchers have found ways to turn plants into the stuff in our fuel tanks--gasoline, diesel fuel, and jet fuel--without having to wait millions of years, of course. There are different techniques but the end goal of researchers and a few companies, including Virent Energy and Sapphire Energy, is to take biomass, such as sugarcane and algae, and convert it into a fuel that's chemically equivalent to what's pumped through our pipelines today.

For biofuels to be a healthy part of the energy mix, the product needs to be produced sustainably and to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions compared to petro-fuels. Determining what's sustainable requires a complicated lifecycle analysis, but so-called green gasoline has the advantage of fitting into the existing fuels infrastructure. And in theory, a plant-based hydrocarbon can use a replenishable feedstock that takes carbon out of the air as it grows.

The perfect battery
If there was ever an area that needs a technology breakthrough, it's energy storage. Better storage would make electric vehicles less expensive and make it easier to use more wind and solar power on the grid. It's difficult to say if there is a preferred method or chemistry. But what seems vital is to design a storage system around a material that is abundant, environmentally benign, and recyclable.

Battery company executives brush off the importance of lithium supply, but the lithium-ion battery boom has raised awareness of lithium supply, which is mostly found in South America and China. As we see different green technologies develop, minerals and metals other than lithium are likely to see a spike in demand.

There are some thermoelectric materials that can generate an electrical current when heat is applied and vice versa. This technology isn't anything revolutionary--thermoelectric modules are what heat and cool car seats today. But what is intriguing is the potential for generating electricity--any form of usable energy, really--from waste heat. Imagine if you could convert all the heat going up the smokestacks of power plants and home furnaces into usable electricity. That would be efficient.

The challenge is similar to cheap solar cells in that the efficiency right now is too low for this technology to be deployed broadly. There are a handful of companies, including GMZ Energy, which is trying to come up with more efficient materials. Auto companies are also trying to outfit cars with thermoelectric chips so that an exhaust pipe, for example, could generate enough juice to make a more fuel-efficient ride.

Microbial fuel cells
What if you could make electricity by plugging an LED light into the ground? Or take waste water or sewage and turn it into usable energy? There are companies and researchers working on these problems using microbial fuels cells, which use an electrochemical energy conversion to make electricity.

One Harvard researcher is pursuing this technology as a way to deliver cheap electricity to developing countries that need off-grid power sources, and the potential market is huge. Others companies, including Emefcy in Israel, see it as a way to treat waste water while generating electricity from a renewable source: waste.

Clearly, these are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the technologies needed to better preserve our natural resources. One could easily list 100 more--hydrogen storage, water purification, marine power, enhanced geothermal, making methanol with carbon dioxide, or for a real home-run swing, cold fusion. What's your moonshot?