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ARPA-E Summit Reveals U.S. Energy Future

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Bill Gates and Steven Chu have a "fireside" chat at the 2012 ARPA-e summit. Courtesy of Department of Energy.

The future of energy will be on display at the fourth annual summit of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, or ARPA–e. But which future?

Energy innovators from start-ups, the national laboratories, universities and even oil companies will gather for three days to hear from the nation’s best about the future of energy.  The confab this year will feature talks from the likes of natural gas pusher T. Boone Pickens and climate savvy mayor Michael Bloomberg as well as panel sessions on everything from how to build a business to a panel on the energy-water nexus (I’ll be moderating that one).

This will be a year of big changes. Founding director Arun Majumdar has moved on to Guiding light Secretary of Energy Steven Chu will soon step down. There have been a host of changes in program directors and programs as the outfit’s first three-year research and testing cycle draws to a close.

The summit last year showcased the programs successes—a new battery technology that might finally make long-range electric cars affordable—but also the juvenile agency’s susceptibility to political winds—a new program to help take advantage of newly abundant supplies of natural gas. Even four years in, it still remains very much to be seen whether ARPA–e will be enough to keep the U.S. at the forefront of global innovation in energy technology, or whether a fresh influx of domestically produced fossil fuels will again displace alternative energy as happened in the past.

I’ll be attending the summit to see how ARPA–e might change during the second Obama administration. To figure that out, I’ll be attending sessions like “Are There Military Applications in Your Future?” to determine who, if anyone, will benefit from ARPA–e successes as well as listening to a “fireside chat” between Chu and electric car visionary Elon Musk to see how that government-backed effort may fare in future.

One thing that remains the same is that energy research remains a focus for the Obama administration. President Obama has called for the federal government to invest far more money in science than it is today—an amount equivalent to the billions of dollars spent on the space program in the 1960s. That may or may not happen but the money already invested in ARPA–e could pay off big with something as world-changing as what its much older sibling—the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA—has yielded. DARPA, after all, gave us the Internet, originally known as ARPA-net, among other things.

Is ARPA–e on track to deliver a similar breakthrough? Chu seems to think so. Here’s how he put it in his farewell letter to Department of Energy employees: “In the first few years, 11 of the companies funded with $40 million have attracted more than $200 million in combined private investment. While it is too early to tell if we have home runs like ARPA-net, there are a number of investments that have certainly rounded second base.”


David Biello About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. dwbd 9:46 pm 02/25/2013

    Again, no usage of “the N-word”, the ONLY significant way to generate large quantities of Clean Energy. The article even mentions SCAM artist and NG salesman T. Boone Pickens, but won’t mention Nuclear Energy.

    You will be very lucky if your “newly abundant supplies of natural gas” last 10 yrs. The only “newly abundant” supply is Shale Gas which has a current cost, using the best locations, of $8/mmbtu. Add another $2/mmbtu for distribution cost. That’s expensive dirty energy. And dirty energy, with high radiation emissions, being sold for $2-$3/mmbtu due to another infamous Wall St. Ponzi scheme.

    And that Shale Gas, including the Methane leakage emissions is every bit as bad as Coal as a GHG producer. Some gain that is.

    US (& Canada) Shale Gas surplus won’t last 10 yrs:

    Cold, Hungry and in the Dark: Exploding the Natural Gas Supply Myth:

    Deborah Rogers explains the myth about abundant domestic Natural Gas, a must-see video:

    The Oil Drum – Don’t count on Natural Gas:

    People have been deluded to believe North America is some big NG haven. It ain’t. Current World NG reserves:

    #1 Russia: 18.3% of World
    #2 Iran: 11.1%
    #3 Turkmenistan: 8.7%
    #4 Qatar: 8.5%
    #5 USA: 2.6%
    #6 Saudi Arabia: 2.5%
    #7 Azerbaijan: 2.0%
    #20 Canada: .9%

    The low value of USA & Canada NG reserves is put in even better perspective by looking at # years of current consumption for proven NG reserves:

    Turkmenistan: 1345 yrs
    Qatar: 1242
    Azerbaijan: 621
    Russia: 133
    Australia: 106
    Saudi Arabia: 98
    Canada: 19
    USA: 11

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  3. 3. geartrust 2:51 pm 02/27/2013

    How do you will stop climate changing? We have only one way with customer’s investment to avoid production and selling new green machines for renewal energy, transportation, machine tools etc those require to wait reduced emissions too long time. There is directly or indirectly to reduce machines energy consumption and emissions soon as possible because it is advantage for both manufacture, customers and opens additional high-paid jobs for economy growth. There are transformation of existing propulsion: (1) existing transmission is replaced by state-of-the-art gearbox apparatus that eliminates to use the gas or magnetic field acceleration and uses only highest torque or idle speed of motor shaft, (2) gearbox apparatus is installed in propulsion that have ignored using gear-transmission and is huge motor, (3) replace existing motor by motor with reduced power and cost in many times. What are arguments?
    In the past, lower technical progress, global communication, education levels and few numbers of vehicles and other machines comprising the propulsion that such directly eliminate transmissions or indirectly their function of saving energy according to four too old traditions:
    I. It has unnecessarily increased motor power in up to hundred times today since chosen steam, gas or magnet field as lever for acceleration of many thousand pounds of vehicle and other machine/part
    II. It uses the transmission as second brake to acceleration system to result of wasting up to 80% mechanical energy in form of motor heat.
    III. Propulsion of lightweight vehicle uses “automatic transmission of torque converter” or “continuously variable transmission” that works as clutch that requires to increase power of motor exceed motor power of 80,000 lbs heavy-duty truck in comparison their weights (3,000 lbs) with highest loads.
    IV. Machine propulsion is only motor jointed to wheels or propeller, or spindle etc. This design directly ignores the Creator’s Physics Laws of Lever and Inertia for saving energy.
    May be engine with increased diameter or number of cylinders more save energy? This is not true. The potato cannon use the basic principle. Therefore, increasing physical cylinder volume or its number of engine or wire length of electric motor is increasing its gas of electric consumption plus the excessive unknown consumption by gas or magnet field acceleration system.

    How do we protect our health, life, stop climate changing, and prevent volcanoes awaking without vehicle production delaying? The Archimedes (circa 287-212) said: “Give me a point of support and I will turn around the Earth by a lever”. May be Archimedes is not relevant? This can be easily examined. A shift gearbox of nine shafts could increase the torque of motor shaft or its power up to 5x5x5x5x5x5x5x5=390,625 times and wastes only 2%x8=16% energy.
    Creator’s idea is non-accelerated vehicle and other machine propulsion comprising steel levers as is a state-of-the-art gearbox apparatus design is disclosed by two USA patents 8,011,274 at 09/06/2011 and 7,191,676 at 03/20/07. There are above 1,000 state-of-the-arts designs that provide advantages for both manufacture and customer (
    1. It comprising least numbers of gears and maybe shafts in the world today;
    2. It cuts energy consumption, emissions including the harmful gas – nitrate oxides (NOx) is by much lower interior temperature of engine condition, noise, power and cost of motor in many times and uses only maximum torque or idle speed for producing needed overdrive speeds and torques;
    3. It improves driver’s safety and comforts by switching manual regime to semi-automatic or/and automatic regimes by computer using;
    4. It could improve maneuverability: a) driver saves time by getting each speed without acceleration and uses many reverse speeds; b) it expands the range of speeds up to 272 forward/170 reverse overdrive speeds/torques by adding only 2 shafts to existing heavy-duty truck gearbox of 18 / 2 torques; c) driver uses front on uphill and rear on downhill, or all wheels temporarily for additional saving energy; d) aircraft or watercraft have much increased turning speed if uses it instead existing operation system.
    5. Its production uses the same machine tools and other items of existing manufacture.
    This innovation is finalist at Cleantech and Energy of 2012 Minnesota’s TEKNE AWARDS (see an article which appeared in 2012 Minnesota’s TEKNE AWARDS magazine).
    Next existing three transformed propulsion examples for understanding to reduce emissions and economy energy is no problem:
    1) Non-accelerated Volvo VGD heavy-duty truck has gearbox apparatus (3x2x2x2) of 24 forward/12 reverse torques/overdrive speeds by 18 gears/5 shafts or 40% gears number less to existing shift gearbox of 18 forward/2 reverse torques. It could reduce motor power in 4 times (500 hp to 123 hp). Driver of the long haul tracking saves above $25,000 per year if $3 fuel price.
    2) Chosen gearbox apparatus (3×4) with only 12 overdrive speeds/ 4 reverse by 16 gears/ 3 shafts replaces the existing transmission of the Jaguar XFR-S 2013 comprising 550 hp motor for acceleration it from 0 to 100 mph for 5 second by gas or magnet field because it is replaced by motor of 20 horse power that could reduce also up to power 0.75 horse power of the first steel vehicle motor of Carl Benz at January 29, 1886, Germany (patent #37435) if will choose gearbox apparatus that produces torques too. Driver of the Jaguar XFR-S 2013 types on computer maximum speed 300 mph and GAFEES moves it during 1(one) second from stop if its wheels and road have sufficient friction.
    3) An automatic programmed gearbox apparatus (2x2x2x2x2x2) of 64 torques/overdrive speeds by 32 gears/ 7 shafts that joined to Dayton motor 1/2 hp that reduce power in 10 times (5hp to 1/2hp) for reason to get non-accelerated CNC Knee Mill spindle. It has reduced CNC Knee Mill cost so that it is affordable by small businesses.

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  5. 5. “Will there be enough water?” – Scientific American | monessasmontage 2:30 pm 03/4/2013

    [...] panel at the recent Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy summit attempted to answer that question. In agriculture, it will take both better breeding—for [...]

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