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.
That’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 explode 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’ 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.”
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.