Moonshot cleantech projects at ARPA-E

Attended ARPA-E’s annual Energy Innovation Summit this week. For those of you not familiar with ARPA-E, it’s the baby sister to Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), that great government program that brought us the likes of the Internet and GPS. ARPA-E was authorized by President Bush in 2007 and saw its first funding of $400 million in 2009 under President Obama, so it is really a toddler. Like DARPA, it seeks to fund moonshot ideas deemed too risky by the private sector, but which have the potential to transform our lives and societies, and it does so in the energy sector.

Unlike DARPA, it hasn’t funded that great transformative technology yet and is constantly dodging bullets aimed at striking it down. (I don’t quite understand. It’s 5 years old. DARPA was founded in 1958 and the Internet didn’t come to until around the early 1980’s. Are toddlers expected to produce the output of adults?) Fortunately it dodged the last major bullet where some Republicans tried to cut its budget by 81%.  While its funding is not as high as some would like it to be, it stands at $280 million for fiscal year 2014, actually $15.5 million more than that allocated for 2013.

But onto the Summit. Not as high-profile speakers as last year’s, where we saw Elon Musk, Michael Bloomberg, T. Boone Pickens, among others (and a very humorous Sec. of Energy Steven Chu who did not adhere to PC comments as it was his last public event). High profile speakers aren’t necessarily better than lesser-known speakers, but they do draw interest to an event. I suppose it was hard to match last year’s lineup. This year’s big speaker was Thomas Friedman, whom many audience members, and I concur, remarked of having an amazing amount of hubris. One person I talked to called Friedman “Captain Obvious.” Friedman also showed up in a sports vest for his keynote, further driving the point of his bloated sense of self. If Elon Musk bothers to show up in a suit, Thomas Friedman had better put on a jacket, and a pretty nifty one.

Regardless, the moonshot technologies were on full display… and boy were they moonshot. There were guys making tornadoes to harvest the wind energy. There were others modifying tobacco to make artificial shark liver compounds used in cosmetics and medicine, so sharks don’t get killed for it. There were every sort of electric motor engine not using/using less rare earths, including a 3D printed one from United Technologies Research Center.

I also noticed a number of converter and transformer technologies. (Brief detour: An engineer at a booth gave me a good description of the difference between alternating current (AC) and direct current (DC), which I had forgotten since I took physics back in college. As far as renewable energy goes, basically wind energy is AC and solar energy is DC. You convert one current to the other for different applications.) Many of the transformers currently employed on the grid are from the 1930’s, according to someone from Homeland Security I sat beside during lunch (not familiar with transformers? thanks Wikipedia). They’re very efficient, which is why they haven’t been swapped, but terribly dated. They’re huge hulking objects and due for an upgrade. The transformer technologies I saw sought to dramatically reduce the size and mobility of the transformers.

All in all, some 300 different technologies spanning sensors, superconductors, batteries to power systems, novel materials, and more were showcased at the event, which took place over three days. But one question I had, and I’m sure many others think of, is how many of these technologies will actually get implemented. Technologies, to make an impact, have to be scaled up and implemented. However, there was a dearth of venture capitalists at the event, who, according to others, previously had been attending in full force just a few years ago. Obviously the VCs have packed their bags in moonshot cleantech, except the few dedicated ones. Meanwhile, speakers and attendees at the conference talked, with hope, of looking to corporates for support and funding. Now I did see Shell Technology Ventures there. But I can’t say there was a tremendous corporate showing. So who were all these enthusiastic entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers displaying their wonders for? For each other?

There was a something of a vacuum in the event with the absence of the money-men, the enablers of technology. And as a speaker at the event said, and I paraphrase, if innovation happens in a vacuum, without implementation, is it really innovation?

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