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Meet the Brains behind the “Energy Moonshot”

Image credit: Fast Company

Batteries made with chemicals that we mine from rhubarb plants, rather than expensive metals taken out of the earth. Magnets that clip onto electrical lines and reroute electrons. Solar panels that work efficiently even when they get hot or are shaded. These are just a few of the advanced energy research projects in the works that could bring the promise of a future electricity grid that is decentralized, resilient, and less carbon-heavy closer to a reality.

You’ve probably heard of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or as Fast Company’s Jessica Leber elaborates, “the military’s research agency that funds the development of mind-reading science, cyborgs, and deadly robots.” But have you heard of ARPA-E? As you might can guess from the title of this article, the “E” stands for Energy. Indeed, ARPA-E is the U.S. Department of Energy’s analog to DARPA, and it’s only five years old.

DARPA got its start in response to the Soviet Union’s launching of the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1. According to “DARPA: Bridging The Gap Powered By Ideas” (2005), “DARPA’s original mission, established in 1958, was to prevent technological surprise like the launch of Sputnik, which signaled that the Soviets had beaten the U.S. into space. The mission statement has evolved over time. Today, DARPA’s mission is still to prevent technological surprise to the US, but also to create technological surprise for our enemies.”

There are many calls these days for another “moon shot” to restore America as the lead in the clean energy race and to combat the twin evils of our fossil foolishness, global warming and ocean acidification. That’s where ARPA-E comes in!

According to ARPA-E’s web site, “Who We Are,”

The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) advances high-potential, high-impact energy technologies that are too early for private-sector investment. ARPA-E awardees are unique because they are developing entirely new ways to generate, store, and use energy.

And under “What We Do,”

ARPA-E projects have the potential to radically improve U.S. economic prosperity, national security, and environmental well being. We focus on transformational energy projects that can be meaningfully advanced with a small investment over a defined period of time. Our streamlined awards process enables us to act quickly and catalyze cutting-edge areas of energy research.

Here’s ARPA-E Acting Director Dr. Cheryl Martin discussing the future of innovation for the electric grid on NPR’s Science Friday:
 


Image source: sciencefriday.com

“We’re trying to take really crazy ideas… and we get it from the impossible to the plausible. That’s an important place. Once people think it’s plausible, then they can decide they want to step up and put some money to do a demonstration.” ~ARPA-E Acting Director Dr. Cheryl Martin

Kyle G. Crider (MPA, LEED AP ND) is a professional science and sustainability “story teller.” In his spare time he is pursuing his Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary (Environmental Health) Engineering and traveling the highways and by-ways of home state with his wife Beverly in search of fact, fiction, and folklore for Strange Alabama.