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Summary:

The world needs more crazy energy entrepreneurs, said Bill Gates. Well here’s five potentially disruptive but a little out there energy projects spotted at the ARPA-E Summit this week.

PHOTOS: Exxon, Synthetic Genomics Open Algae Test Facility

Calling for a revival of the moon shot in America has become something of a trend. The Google guys are big fans, particularly with their Google Solve for X project, and the MIT Tech Review has recently been questioning why America can’t solve big problems anymore. But at the ARPA-E Summit this week there were thousands of researchers, inventors, entrepreneurs and investors who are working on “out there” answers to our energy problems, which, if they actually succeed, could be game-changers.

FastCAP1That’s the whole idea of the ARPA-E program — the small grants are given to high-risk early-stage projects that have the potential to make a big impact, but are likely too early for private investors to support. At the end of the day that means that most of the projects won’t succeed, or as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a speech on the final morning: probability says most of these projects will flop. But in a year when other forms of government funding, and venture capital funding are drying, up ARPA-E is still giving big energy ideas a glimmer of hope.

As Bill Gates once said: we need crazy energy entrepreneurs. And they were there in full force at the ARPA-E Summit. Here are 5 projects I checked out this week:

1). A breakthrough ultracapacitor: Tesla CEO Elon Musk once said he thought ultracapacitors would one day supercede batteries in electric cars. Ultracapacitors store energy in an electric field, rather than in a chemical reaction, and can survive hundreds of thousands more charge and discharge cycles than a battery can, and can also deliver high bursts of power. ARPA-E grant winner FastCAP makes an ultracapacitor that uses carbon nanotubes to increase the surface area of the electrode — the more surface area of the electrode the more energy can be stored. FastCAP says its ultracapacitor has 5 to 10 times higher energy density than commercial ultracapacitors.

During the ARPA-E Summit showcase FastCAP Director of Operations Jamie Beard told me that an early application that its ultracapacitors are being used for is oil, gas and geothermal drilling. Because the ultracapacitors can be used at very high temperatures they can be used down in deep wells where the temperatures are high and the power needs are high, too. Drill operators don’t want to use standard batteries for this because batteries can catch on fire and 5870888301_b1109744d9_bexplode under high temperatures. Beard says that FastCAP’s ultracapacitors can operate safely between -40 degrees C to 150 degrees C.

FastCAP is backed by the Chesonis Family Foundation, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, and angel investors. The company has 30 or so people, a 18,000 foot factory in Boston, and a 40-foot-long custom-built pilot line for making its ultracaps.

2). A natural gas tank that works like an intestine: Saul Griffith’s Otherlab is working on a natural gas tank for vehicles that uses small tubes that can conform to the shape of the vehicle. Mimicking how an intestine has boosted capacity in the body, the tubes of the natural gas tank could have maximum storage capacity. Otherlab’s Tucker Gilman pitched the intestinal natural gas tank to investors on the opening night of the Summit. ARPA-E gave the project a $250,000 grant.

3). The waste annihilating molten salt nuclear reactor: This nuclear project isn’t backed by ARPA-E, but Transatomic Power co-founder and CEO Russ Wilcox pitched the technology to investors at the beginning of the summit. Transatomic is designing a new type of nuclear reactor that can run off of nuclear waste and also produce significantly less waste than the traditional lightwater nuclear reactor. Wilcox is the former CEO and co-founder of display-maker E Ink.

Two other Transatomic co-founders are Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie (shown in the video) who are both PhD students at MIT’s nuclear engineering department. Transatomic also counts advisors Todd Allen, Director for the Advanced Test Reactor National Scientific User Facility at Idaho National Laboratory, Michael Corradini, president of the American Nuclear society, and Regis Matzie, who was the former CTO for Westinghouse. Kleiner Perkins’ 3761166103_b7a3534347_bDavid Wells gave the company the feedback that while the company and executives are impressive, the project is “out of the range of the VC funding model.”

4). Tweaking E.Coli to solve our problems: Founded in 2007 by synthetic biologist Yasuo Yoshikuni, Bio Architecture Lab uses synthetic biology and enzyme design to convert seaweed into biochemicals and biofuels. It’s tweaked E.coli to be able to turn kelp into fuel. The company received an ARPA-E grant in 2010 to work on a project with DuPont to turn seaweed into isobutanol. DuPont is actively looking to partner with startups in various areas — check out my interview with DuPont’s CEO Ellen Kullman.

Ginko Bioworks is another startup that is focused on using synthetic biology to tweak E.coli — it’s developed a strain of E.coli that can directly use carbon dioxide to produce biofuels. Ginko Bioworks researcher Jason Kelly told me during the Summit that the company doesn’t plan on doing any production of the actual fuel and compared the startup to “biological software developers.”

5). Magnetic algae – say what?: There’s a type of bacteria in the soil that have cells filled with magnetic crystals, and this enables the bacteria to move along magnetic fields. Yeah, that’s pretty weird on its own. But researchers at Los Alamos National Labs are genetically engineering a gene in these bacteria and placing it in algae, creating magnetic algae which can be manipulated using magnets. The technology could theoretically be used in algae biofuel production and fuel use.

  1. Kathie,
    EESTOR team of pumpers wanted you to believe Dick Weir (chief alchemist) has successful produced off a production line EESU layers which meet the energy density of lead acid battery. I can’t believe EESTOR was a no show at the Summit. He must be hiding the EESU layers from the dog that ate the 52kwh EESUs back in 2007.

    Baghead’s (B’s) boys are not happy with your coverage of EESTOR, hehehe.

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  2. I like the molten salt reactor concept,but a big technical hurdle will be finding materials that can last long term in the extremely corrosive environment found in molten salt reactors.

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    1. The corrosion problems have largely been solved by advances in metallurgy and chemistry in the years since the program was shut down.

      And in any case, when the program was shut down, the problem was exaggerated by Milton Shaw, the guy behind wrote the report. Shaw was a solid fuel light-water reactor fan and a protege of Rickover.

      http://nucleargreen.blogspot.com/2010/05/how-milton-shaw-blew-nuclear-safety.html

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  3. Nuclear power isn’t the problem.

    The problem is that we’ve been using the wrong reactors. If the reactors at Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island had been Molten Salt Reactors (MSRs) nothing would have happened.

    • Molten salt reactor technology was developed at Oak Ridge National Labs in the 1960s. Although the test reactor worked flawlessly, the project was shelved, a victim of political shenanigans in the Nixon Administration. But MSRs have been gathering a lot of new attention since the events in Japan.

    • An MSR is a completely different kind of reactor, as different as an electric motor from a gasoline engine. It can’t melt down, and it automatically adjusts its power output to meet changing workload demands. It requires no active cooling system and no external power source during an emergency, so it can be installed literally anywhere on earth, even an underground vault. A tsunami or tornado would roll over it, like a truck over a manhole cover.

    • MSRs use liquid fuel – nuclear material dissolved in molten salt. While modern solid-fuel reactors are far safer than the ones at Fukushima, a meltdown is still possible, with the steam ejection of radioactive material. MSRs don’t use water, and always operate at ambient (atmospheric) pressure. A meltdown would be completely impossible in an MSR, even if someone tried to induce one.

    • An MSR could deliver 750ºC heat for industrial processes, or spin a high-temperature gas turbine to generate power. If disaster strikes and an MSR springs a leak, the spill cools to an inert lump of rock, chemically locking the atomic material inside. Radioactive particles would not spread downwind or downstream, and all the material could be recovered and used again. A spill would be measured in square meters, not square kilometers.

    • MSRs will run on Thorium, a mildly radioactive material more common than tin and found all over the world. America has already mined enough Thorium to power the entire country for 400 years. It’s found by the ton in the tailings of our abandoned Rare Earth Element mines.

    • MSRs will be highly resistant to proliferation. When 232-Thorium is converted to 233-Uranium inside the reactor, it is virtually impossible to isolate the material in its pure form for use in a nuclear weapon. MSRs will be the best reactors for making energy and the worst reactors for making bombs.

    • An MSR’s liquid fuel can be continuously cleaned of the contaminants that spoil solid fuel, while the reactor is operating at full power. This unique feature enables MSRs to consume fuel so thoroughly that they will be able to use the spent fuel from conventional reactors. MSRs will enable us to greatly reduce our stockpiles of nuclear waste, while producing a minuscule amount of waste themselves.

    • A 1-gigawatt MSR, big enough to power a city of one million, will run on one ton of Thorium per year, or about 2 teaspoons per hour. The long-term waste will be the size of a basketball, and virtually harmless in just 500 years.

    A national rollout of Molten Salt Reactors would create thousands of good jobs in every region of America, by launching a new paradigm of safe, cheap, and abundant carbon-free energy. A national Thorium infrastructure was visualized by the Kennedy administration as far back as 1962. Sadly, the molten salt program at Oak Ridge was shut down ten years later, even though the test reactor ran without a hitch for nearly 20,000 hours.

    While a lot of useful R&D has been performed since then, the MSR is still on the drawing board. But with sufficient R&D funding (probably less than $2 billion), five years to commercialization is entirely realistic, and another five years for a national rollout is eminently feasible. Some technical issues still need to be addressed, but nothing insurmountable.

    Remember, we geared up overnight to build thousands of Liberty ships, tanks, and bombers (not to mention the Manhattan Project) and we did it all without the aid of a single computer or cell phone. There’s no reason to think we can’t do it again, because this isn’t rocket science, it’s just a kettle of chemicals with high-temperature, low-pressure plumbing.

    In the fall of 2010, a Chinese delegation toured Oak Ridge. Under a collaboration agreement between the U.S. DoE and the Chinese Academy of Science, several subsequent meetings ensued in which we shared our molten salt technology.

    In theory, this sounds hopeful for the future of MSR, and the expansion of carbon-free energy for the entire planet. But realize that if we drop the ball again, the Chinese won’t. And they will patent every advance they make.

    The MSR languished on America’s drawing boards for decades, but now it’s on China’s drawing boards as well. And they mean business. If we don’t follow through this time, we will soon buying our own invention from China.

    If this isn’t a Sputnik Moment, then I don’t know what is.

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  4. 3). The waste annihilating molten salt nuclear reactor
    the one that should have been developed in the first place.

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  5. larry-shultz-33 Sunday, March 3, 2013

    Two other Transatomic co-founders are Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie who are both PhD students at MIT’s nuclear engineering department. Transatomic also counts advisors Todd Allen, Director for the Advanced Test Reactor National Scientific User Facility at Idaho National Laboratory, Michael Corradini, president of the American Nuclear society, and Regis Matzie, who was the former CTO for Westinghouse. Kleiner Perkins’ David Wells gave the company the feedback that while the company and executives are impressive, the project is “out of the range of the VC funding model.

    http://universaloilrecovery.com/

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  6. larry-shultz-33 Sunday, March 3, 2013

    Two other Transatomic co-founders are Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie who are both PhD students at MIT’s nuclear engineering department. Transatomic also counts advisors Todd Allen, Director for the Advanced Test Reactor National Scientific User Facility at Idaho National Laboratory, Michael Corradini, president of the American Nuclear society, and Regis Matzie, who was the former CTO for Westinghouse.

    http://universaloilrecovery.com/

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  7. Hot! Now all we need to do is change the ownership models – queue Trillion:

    http://www.trillionfund.com

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  8. After I lost a few bucks when A123 Systems, the MIT-related battery company bit the shed, I’m leery of any new start-up that has a MIT connection….

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