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ARPA-E: Cleantech Innovation and the Pursuit of Decarbonization


The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) has announced funding opportunities for two new programs, each with $20 million, aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks. The first, Reducing Emissions Using Methanotrophic Organisms for Transportation Energy (REMOTE), is focused on developing improved biological technologies to convert natural gas to liquids for transportation fuels, while the second, Modern Electro/Thermochemical Advancements for Light-Metal Systems (METALS), is geared towards improving the manufacturing and recycling of light metals for use in vehicles. (No one can fault the agency’s efforts to create clever acronyms). The move signals emerging government recognition of the importance of transportation decarbonization and the need for a range of innovative transportation technologies to facilitate that endeavor.

Cutting transportation sector emissions is critical to mitigating climate change. The ITIF report Shifting Gears notes that more than 20 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to cars and light trucks. Furthermore, the report observes, the number of those vehicles on the road globally is estimated to grow more than 47 percent from 750 million in 2010 to 1.1 billion in 2039.

Fittingly, the federal government launched several initiatives as of late to tackle that challenge. In November 2012, for example, the Energy Department announced the creation of a new Batteries and Energy Storage Hub at Argonne National Laboratory. On the eve of this year’s Energy Innovation Summit, ARPA-E announced funding for a new program focused on improving electric vehicle (EV) battery technologies – Robust Affordable Next Generation Energy Storage Systems, or RANGE – as well as an open funding opportunity which notably distributed three grants for projects specifically geared towards reducing EV charging times. And just last week, President Obama proposed the creation of an Energy Security Trust Fund that would provide $2 billion over ten years for research on cleaner transportation alternatives such as advanced biofuels and advanced batteries for electric vehicles, derived from royalty revenues from federal oil and gas development.

But while recent federal initiatives have focused on improving EVs – as has the media, as evidenced by the Tesla-Broder spat – decarbonization of the global transportation sector cannot depend on the promise of better EV batteries alone. ARPA-E should thus be commended for pursuing innovation in a variety of transportation technologies and not putting all of its eggs in one basket, so to speak. In fact, the new REMOTE and METALS programs join an array of transportation-oriented ARPA-E programs that includes not only RANGE, but also, among others, Plants Engineered to Replace Oil (PETRO), Methane Opportunities for Vehicular Energy (MOVE), and Microorganisms for Liquid Transportation Fuel (Electrofuels – perhaps the only instance of the agency dropping the ball on acronyms).

ARPA-E Deputy Director Dr. Cheryl Martin described the agency’s philosophy in a recent interview with ITIF: “We ask, is our research going to be transformational? And that’s our focus. If it works, let’s demonstrate that first. And if it works, is it going to matter?” When it comes to transportation decarbonization, the answer is a resounding yes.

Clifton Yin's picture

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I K's picture
I K on Mar 26, 2013 7:02 pm GMT

The best thing mankind can do for the environment and themselves at this juncture is to ASAP develop computer driven vehicles

They will reduce fuel consumption by at least 80% per mile per person and possible by over 90%.

Traffic and accidents would be much reduced. Its worth in the region of $10 Trillion yearly to humanity and at least 2TW of lower energy use.

Environmentally and economically this advancement is worth more than anything we can achieve with wind, solar or nuclear all combined this generation.


Jessee McBroom's picture
Jessee McBroom on Mar 27, 2013 11:34 am GMT

Thanks for posting the article Clifton. It is very informative and descriptive of how big a role ARPA-e plays in the United States' Energy and Transportations' futures. ARPA-e brifges a very critical gap between New Technonology  and Industry and critical funding for Advanced R&D with rapid deployment into Industry that conventional lenders will not fill. I appreciate having ARPA-e as an option for high tech partnering.

Wilmot McCutchen's picture
Wilmot McCutchen on Mar 27, 2013 5:17 pm GMT

ARPA-E has a 20% cost-sharing requirement.  For example, if the research project has a budget of $1M, the applicant will have to put up $200,000.  That may seem like lunch money to policymakers accustomed to trillion dollar deficits, but it is an insurmountable hurdle to startups. Funding opportunity announcements have extremely short deadlines after they are published (3 days), so if you have not been tipped off you won't have time to submit your application.  And really you shouldn't bother if you're not rich enough to spare $200,000. 

The technology merits don't seem to matter, since DOE maintains no database of technology assessment nor any real outreach.  There is no way for the public to engage in a discussion about what gets chosen as a topic for research proposals.  ARPA-E does no research, it only decides (arbitrarily) who gets money.  Scalability and water impact don't seem to matter either.  Case in point: the $1B CO2 underground storage project known as FutureGen 2.0, which can't scale and will push salt into the groundwater.  If ARPA-E is what President Obama wants to cite as one of his proudest achievements, he needs to take a closer look, and so should his nominee for DOE.  

New technology does not come from the well-connected corporate moochers who scavenge ARPA-E grants.  Consider this list of what got funded and who got the money:

In his farewell letter, ex-DOE Secretary Chu said that some ARPA-E projects had made second base.  After four years of a program that was supposed to hit home runs, that should be cause for remorse.  

Paul Ebert's picture
Paul Ebert on Mar 27, 2013 9:36 pm GMT

Computer driven vehicles will be a huge advance, but 80 to 90%?  Could you please elaborate on how such an improvement would be realized?  Seems high to me.

I K's picture
I K on Mar 27, 2013 10:47 pm GMT

Computer driven vehicles will mean higher utilisation. So instead of 1 person per car we go to 6 people per car. By doing that, although the car is no more mpg efficient, you burn 83% less fuel per person per mile.

When I first mention this to others they tend to react with something like “I don’t want to share a car with a stranger” but that’s not how it would be. A computer driven car could be built with 6 seats which are all separated from each other. So you don’t even need to see the other passengers.

They will effectively be computer driven taxis. They will be so cheap per mile and so plentiful that I suspect most people will opt not to have a private car once they are widespread.

Not to mention other benefits like faster speeds.
Less accidents
Less traffic.
Able to sleep or read or work instead of drive.

Able to go vast distances very cheaply (think 150 mph for 8 hours = 1,200 miles and you sleep for most the trip on a reclined seat. Would make a lot of short/medium rail and flight redundant)

You also have a lot of other advantages. For instance imagine Amazon had a computer driven delivery van. It comes to your door and you get a text message on your cell phone. You go downstairs and input a password and it opens your hatch and you take your parcel. Effectively very cheap very secure delivery of goods and products

Paul Ebert's picture
Paul Ebert on Mar 28, 2013 2:01 pm GMT

Comment moved.

Paul Ebert's picture
Paul Ebert on Mar 28, 2013 2:01 pm GMT

So, what you're referring to is, basically, what's presented here:

This is certainly an exciting vision that would have a huge impact as you describe.  However, it requires significant cultural changes in addition to the technological advancements.  Sometimes it seems like the technological advancements are the easy part.  High-speed rail comes to mind.  I'd love to see both come to fruition; the sooner the better.

We will, of course, still need sustainable energy for heating buildings, manufacturing and the like.

I K's picture
I K on Mar 28, 2013 5:17 pm GMT

Link does not do justice to just how big an impact computer driven vehicles will have.

Taking the UK for example, there are many hundreds of people who are going from London to Birmingham right now. Assume 100 cars at 50mpg = 200 gallons of fuel.

By comparison just 20 computer driven cars could collect all those travellers and set off on the motorway at 100mph speed all of the vehicles magnetically coupled so they form a "train" of 20 cars. The first car achieves 50mpg fuel economy with all preceding cars at 500mpg. Total fuel use.....5.8 gallons

That is a 97% reduction in fuel use and you also save half an hour due to the faster travailing speed. Less traffic, fewer accidents, higher speeds, lower cost, less cars needed and you only use 3% of the fuel vs human drivers.

These vehicles will mean the death of "high speed rail". To use a rail system first you need to get to your starting station at very slow speeds,  you then wait at the station for your train to arrive, you then take your high speed train, you then travil at very slow speeds from that station to where you want to be. The portion of your trip on the train may be high speed but your overall trip is very slow. It would take about 3 hours to go from London to Birmingham on high speed rail once you factor going to and from the station. That’s only 35 miles per hour average speed....

By comparison the self drive vehicle will come to your door pick you up, then go and pick up 4 others nearby who are going to roughly the same place and set off. It can do 150 mph and go from London to Birmingham and drop off all passengers outside exactly where they want to be in less than 1 hour. That’s 3x faster and it will be much cheaper too.

For the same reason these computer vehicles will mean the death of short and medium haul flights. The cars will only travil at 120mph vs 500mph on a plane but when you take into account the two hours to get to the airport and the two hours wait at the airport and the two hours flight and the hour checkout and the hour to get from that airport to where you want to be...the car can do nearly 1,000 miles in that time..... So any trip which is less than about 1,000 miles will mean cars take over and again per mile per person they will be some 80-90% more energy efficent

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