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Here at the Department of Energy’s first ARPA-E Summit, which was created around the $400 million in grants that the DOE is giving out to early-stage clean power startups, there’s the “haves” and the “have nots.” The “haves” are the fortunate (lucky?) 1 percent of applicants that applied for and received an ARPA-E grant, and of course, the “have nots” are everyone else — mostly smart entrepreneurs with fascinating ideas that just didn’t get selected.
As I wandered around the ARPA-E Summit on Tuesday, chatted with attendees, and visited the booths of the finalists (who made it past the first cut but have not yet received funding), it was very clear that there has been a wealth of technology that has emerged to try to tap the ARPA-E funds. From fuel cells, to energy storage, to biofuels to batteries, I haven’t seen such a promising group in quite awhile. Here’s 7 cutting edge energy ideas that made it to the finalist round of the ARPA-E grants (and could very well receive ARPA-E funding in the next rounds):
1). BrightEarth Technologies: BrightEarth Technologies is developing an innovation on the decades-old use of compressed air for energy storage. Traditional compressed air technology takes excess energy from a power plant or renewable energy and uses it to run air compressors, which pump air into an underground cave or container where it’s stored under pressure. When the air is released, it powers a turbine, creating electricity. BrightEarth has developed a system that stores the compressed air in a thin bag at the bottom of a body of water — hydrostatic water pressure keeps the air and bag intact even though the bag material is inexpensive. The temperature of the surrounding water can be used to compress and expand the air.
2). CellTech Power: When it comes to solid oxide fuel cells (no, Bloom Energy didn’t invent these) it’s all about tin for CellTech Power. CellTech has developed a liquid tin anode that it says can run a fuel cell on any hydrocarbon source, like biomass and even coal. CellTech was a finalist for the ARPA-E program through its development of a biomass demonstrator project that can have efficiencies of over 50 percent compared with 20 percent efficiency for current biomass plants. CellTech is looking to commercialize its technology around being the only fuel cell that can run on military jet fuel JP-8.
3). GeoTek Energy: Revolution for geothermal? GeoTek says it has developed a geothermal technology — called the GeoTek Energy Gravity Head Energy System — that uses gravity and heat to eliminate the large pumping loads needed for geothermal power. The company says if it gets funds from the second or third round of grants it will build a pilot plant to prove the technology.
4). General Compression: More compressed air energy storage innovation. General Compression says it uses isothermal compression and expansion to generate power without burning natural gas. The company claims its 2-megawatt modular units can store power at 70-75 percent round-trip efficiency. Because the units can respond in less than 30 seconds and cycle between compression and expansion quickly, they could be used to back up wind farm power output, which is the company’s main focus. Perhaps the company doesn’t need a ARPA-E grant after all, though, and last week announced the close of a $17 million Series A round of funding to help it build a commercial-scale unit to test the proposition.
5). Graphene Energy: Here’s the idea behind Austin, Texas, startup, Graphene Energy: Develop a technology using graphene, a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon, with at least twice the storage capacity of commercially available ultracapacitors. Ultracapacitors have ultra-fast charge and discharge times, but lag far behind batteries in terms of the amount of energy they can store. The ARPA-E finalist raised a seed round from investor David Gelbaum and would use a grant to help it take the technology out of the lab and package it into ultracapacitors.
6). Velkess: The two-year-old company says it has developed a new kind of flywheel (spinning discs that store energy and help stabilize electricity grids) that is cheaper and more stable and safe than conventional flywheels. The company says it’s currently working on developing and proving large scale prototypes for power grid applications.
7). Lockheed Martin Aeronautics: Well, it’s not a startup, but the division of the defense contractor was a finalist for an ARPA-E grant for developing panels that use energy harvesting to collect wind power via pyroelectric membranes.