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Feds give $54M to cut manufacturing energy use

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Funding innovation and manufacturing  to  create jobs is a big theme in this election year, and you can expect a flurry of announcements from the Department of Energy to drive that point home. In fact, the DOE announced Tuesday that it’s giving away $54 million to 13 projects to develop technologies that will help manufacturers reduce energy use and lower production costs of components that will lead to cheaper clean power equipment.

The money is going to academic research institutions and quite a few large companies such as General Motors and Delphi Automotive. Some projects aren’t sexy. GM’s project, for example, “will develop an integrated super-vacuum die casting process using a new magnesium alloy to achieve a 50% energy savings compared to the multi-piece, multi-step, stamping and joining process currently used to manufacture car doors,” the DOE press release said.

The funding announcement underscores President Obama’s twin goals: reminding his clean energy supporters that he still cares and positioning himself as a job creator, which he hopes will help him attract voters on the right as well.

It’s a perennial cause for politicians to show they want and can boost domestic manufacturing of a variety of goods. But accomplishing that goal is difficult, and the bottomline is manufacturers will set up factories at places where they could produce more cheaply and easily ship their products to customers. Enticing them with incentives – such as grants, loans and tax breaks – certainly helps, and so will relaxing rules. Adding regulations that require, say, government agencies to buy only American-made goods also will prompt some manufacturers to set up shop domestically. But manufacturing is a largely a global business these days, and there are many countries that are happy to provide more lucrative incentive packages and relaxed environmental and other rules in exchange for manufacturing jobs and tax revenues.

Here is a look at some of the more interesting projects from the DOE announcement today:

1. PolyPlus: The battery maker is getting nearly $9 million to complete its work on encapsulating the lithium anode and enter mass production of three types of lithium-based batteries for electric vehicles: lithium-water, lithium-air and lithium-sulfur batteries. These batteries should be able to pack a lot more energy into a given space than conventional lithium-air batteries today, the company said. Polyplus previously received a DOE grant to develop one of the three, the lithium air battery, which has been a subject to academic debates over whether it would be suitable for electric cars. PolyPlus plans to work with Corning and Johnson Controls on the project.

2. MEMC: The silicon wafer maker plans to use the $3.68 million to figure out how to make gallium nitride more cheaply. Gallium nitride is a key ingredient for making more efficient  LED chips, laser displays and power conversion electronics, but producing it to make sure it doesn’t degrade or otherwise lose its performance is difficult. The company will be working with Sandia National Laboratories and Georgia Institute of Technology.

3. Research Triangle Institute: The DOE awarded $4.8 million to Research Triangle Institute to demonstrate a wastewater treatment system that combines forward osmosis with membrane distillation processes and targets factory owners as customers. The systemwill be able to capture and make use of waste heat from a factory for tasks such as treating wastewater. Its project partners are Duke University and Veolia.

4. MIT: The institute will use the $1 million grant to figure out how to make polyethylene fibers that conduct thermal energy well and can replace metals and ceramic components in heat-transfer equipment, which is commonly found in industrial air conditioning and solar water heaters.

5. Air Products and Chemicals: The company is getting $1.2 million to use the microbial reverse electrodialysis technology to recover waste heat and convert effluents into electricity and chemical products such as hydrogen gas. The company has teamed up with Pennsylvania State University for this work.