Summary:

Cheaper, longer-lasting, safer and smaller — those are the kinds of rechargeable batteries that could become available for electric cars if some of the research projects funded under the Department of Energy’s latest round of grants for high-risk, early-stage energy technologies deliver on their moonshot ambitions.

Cheaper, longer-lasting, safer and smaller — those are the kinds of rechargeable batteries that could become available for electric cars if some of the research projects funded under the Department of Energy’s latest round of grants for high-risk, early-stage energy technologies deliver on their moonshot ambitions.

Of the more than $106 million in grants announced this week under the Energy Department’s ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy) program, nearly a third — some $34.6 million — has been allocated to 10 projects developing energy storage tech for plug-in vehicles. In addition, 13 projects working on electrofuels (converting hydrogen and carbon dioxide into motor fuel, for example), have garnered more than $41.2 million.

ReVolt Technology battery layers

In the group of energy storage projects, a 6-year-old company called ReVolt Technology (a spin-off of one of the research institute SINTEF, Norway) won the largest award — just over $5 million — to work on zinc-air flow batteries that would enable plug-in vehicles to drive longer distances on a single charge. Sion Power Corp, founded in 1994 as a spin-off from Brookhaven National Lab, follows close behind with a $5 million grant to develop a lithium-sulfur battery that in theory could power an electric vehicle for more than 300 miles between charges.

Created in 2007, but left unfunded until the passage of last year’s Recovery Act, ARPA-E has $400 million to award over two years, and winning teams are required to share at least 10 percent of the project costs. Since the program is meant to support work on tech that other investors consider too risky, each of the awards represents something of a gamble.

Massachusetts-based battery maker A123Systems, which went public in September and scored a $249 million DOE grant last summer, has gotten in on two of the latest ARPA-E bets, as a partner on projects led by Applied Materials and MIT. Awarded grants of more than $4 million each, those projects will focus on developing a low-cost manufacturing process for lithium-ion batteries, and a new type of semi-solid rechargeable flow battery.

ARPA-E project selections (click to download PDF)

Other winners in this latest round of grants include startup Planar Energy (about $4 million), PolyPlus Technologies (nearly $5 million), MIT spin-off Pellion Technologies ($3.2 million), Recapping Inc. ($1 million) based in Menlo Park, Calif., and Missouri University of Science & Technology (nearly $1 million), working on a lithium-air battery.

While 10 projects focused on energy storage tech for transportation in this latest round, there’s only one automaker in the mix: Honda, which is partnering research into all-electron batteries (moving electrons rather than ions) led by Stanford University.

For the younger ventures in this and previous ARPA-E rounds, scoring an ARPA-E grant can bring not just funds but the proof of government validation. And as we explained it in this article last fall, winning an ARPA-E grant can shift the playing field for early-stage startups entirely.

In the bigger picture, if even one of these research projects pans out it could disrupt the auto industry as we know it. That’s a big “if” however, and this research remains at an early enough stage that we likely won’t see the impact of it for years to come. As as CalCars.org founder Felix Kramer has put it to us, ARPA-E is “explicitly for long-term home runs,” rather than near-term solutions.

For the full list of awards and project descriptions, click here (PDF download). Battery layers image courtesy of ReVolt Technology.

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By Josie Garthwaite

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