Editorial: Investing in Energy and Economic Security | AIChE

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Editorial: Investing in Energy and Economic Security


This is an expanded version of the Editorial that appeared in the print version of Chemical Engineering Progress, July 2017.

The mission of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) is to overcome the long-term and high-risk technological barriers in the development of energy technologies that would enhance the economic and energy security of the U.S. — by reducing imports of energy from foreign sources, reducing energy-related emissions, and improving the energy efficiency of all economic sectors — as well as ensure that the U.S. maintains a technological lead in developing and deploying advanced energy technologies.

ARPA-E funds work related to transportation fuels, power generation and distribution, and building, transportation, and industrial efficiency — early-stage research with payback periods longer than most corporations are comfortable with. In his keynote speech at
ARPA-E’s annual Energy Innovation Summit in February, MIT president L. Rafael Reif stressed the importance of government support in moving science from academia to industry. “This is not a conservative versus liberal point of view. This is about the future of our nation,” Reif said. “Support for basic science and applied science is not a luxury we can afford when we are rich; it’s basically an investment in our future. … If we stop investing in basic science, forget about innovation.”

Solar energy — such as the concentrating solar thermal technologies that are the subject of this issue’s special energy section (pp. 19–42) — are part of ARPA-E’s portfolio. For example:

  • Research Triangle Institute (RTI) is developing a concentrating solar thermal energy transport and storage system for use in light metals manufacturing that employs a heat-transfer powder that can be heated to 1,100°C, as well as advanced materials that can withstand these high temperatures.
  • Otherlab is developing an inexpensive small mirror system with an innovative drive system to reflect sunlight onto concentrating solar power (CSP) towers, an alternative to expensive and bulky 20–30-ft-tall mirrors and expensive sun-tracking devices used in today’s solar power plants.
  • Halotechnics is developing a high-temperature thermal energy storage system using earth-abundant and low-melting-point molten glass that is extremely stable at temperatures up to 1,200°C and could be cheaper than the molten salt used in most commercial systems today.
  • Researchers at Georgia Tech are developing a high-efficiency concentrating solar receiver and reactor that uses liquid metal to capture and transport heat at much higher temperatures than current CSP facilities.

ARPA-E, which resides in the U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE), has provided approximately $1.5 billion in R&D funding to more than 580 projects. Of those, 74 project teams have attracted private sector follow-on funding totaling over $1.8 billion, 56 projects have formed new companies, 68 projects have partnered with other government agencies for further development, 13% of the projects have obtained patents, and numerous technologies have been incorporated into products sold on the market today. Its budget for this fiscal year is about $300 million.

A recent analysis by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that “ARPA-E has made significant contributions to energy R&D that likely would not take place absent the agency’s activities,” said Pradeep Khosla, chancellor of the Univ. of California, San Diego, and chair of the committee that wrote the report. ARPA-E is successfully enhancing the economic and energy security of the U.S. by funding transformational activities, white space (technology areas that are novel or underexplored and unlikely to be addressed by the private sector or by other federal research programs), and feasibility studies to open up new technological directions and evaluate the technical merit of potential directions, the report says. And, it says that attempts to reform the agency, such as applying pressure for ARPA-E to show short-term successes rather than focusing on its long-term mission and goals, would pose a significant risk of harming its efforts and chances of achieving its mission and goals.

The report explains that ARPA-E’s program directors have been empowered to take risks in selecting projects and to actively manage ongoing projects, including altering project milestones, budgets, and timelines. It points out that one of the agency’s strengths is its focus on funding high-risk, potentially transformative technologies and overlooked “off-roadmap” opportunities pursued by neither private firms nor other funding agencies.

Unfortunately, like so many other science- and engineering-related programs, the existence of ARPA-E is threatened. The president’s proposed 2018 budget reduces the DOE’s budget by $2.7 billion, based on the reasoning that “the private sector is better positioned to finance disruptive energy research and development and to commercialize innovative technologies.” Even if there is more expertise in the private sector than in the government, corporations preoccupied with the next quarter’s financial returns are not likely to make the necessary long-term investments in this kind of early-stage transformational R&D.

In his comments on the proposed budget, Trump says that “We must increase development of America’s energy resources, strengthening our national security, lowering the price of electricity and transportation fuels, and driving down the cost of consumer goods so that every American individual and business has more money to save and invest. A consistent, long-term supply of lower-cost American energy brings with it a much larger economy, more jobs, and greater security for the American people.”

Congress is already working on the budget for FY 2018, which begins October 1. We should be educating our elected officials about the role ARPA-E and other DOE programs — such as the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), the National Laboratories, and the Manufacturing USA Institutes, including AIChE’s Rapid Advancement in Process Intensification Deployment (RAPID) — can play in meeting the president’s goals.

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