In a Recovery Act cabinet meeting yesterday, US Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Vice President Biden announced a large amount of research funding for three different types of advanced projects directly related to the future of transportation. The funding comes from the Advanced Research Projects Agency — Energy (ARPA-E) stimulus funds and will go to 37 different institutions in 17 states.
The projects will attack three goals: using microbes and electricity to directly convert materials into biofuels (“electrofuels”), developing a new generation of low-cost, ultra-high energy density batteries, and creating revolutionary new carbon capture technologies to make coal power zero emissions.
“Electrofuels” — Making Biofuels from Electricity
As the DOE says, “Today’s technologies for making biofuels all rely on photosynthesis – either indirectly by converting plants to fuels or directly by harnessing photosynthetic organisms such as algae.” Although this approach shows promise for producing excellent results, especially with algae and cellulosic ethanol, the plants and algae are less than 1% efficient at converting sunlight into the energy we find in biofuels.
To get around this, in the electrofuels approach, organisms are tailored to extract energy from other renewable sources — such as solar power, hydrogen made from solar power or the metals naturally present in rocks — to make biofuels more than 10 times as efficiently than even current advanced biomass techniques.
Batteries for Electrical Energy Storage in Transportation (“BEEST”)
The holy grail of all electrified transportation advocates is a battery that laughs at the energy density of gasoline. If this one limiting factor of batteries could be overcome at a reasonable cost, there would be absolutely no reason to resist a wholesale shift to battery powered cars. The curiously named ARPA-E BEEST program “seeks to develop a new generation of ultra-high energy density, low-cost battery technologies for long range plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles.” Simple enough, right?
Innovative Materials & Processes for Advanced Carbon Capture Technologies (“IMPACCT”)
The U.S. has lots of domestically produced coal available… which is why our current energy mix consists of about 51% coal-fired electricity. Coal provides energy security, produces cheap electricity, and creates much needed jobs. But it also produces huge amounts of greenhouse gases and other types of pollutants as well as destroying the landscape.
Even though we now know that electric cars run on coal fired power pollute less than gas powered cars, it would still be nice to be able to stop coal from causing so much environmental destruction. In this vein, the ARPA-E IMPACCT program “aims to support revolutionary technologies to capture carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants using a range of approaches, including solvents, sorbents, catalysts, enzymes, membranes, and gas-liquid-solid phase changes.”
You can read about all 37 projects, and the amounts distributed to each, below.
Sources: DOE and Biofuels Digest