The Department of Energy announced $106M today in funding for 37 experimental projects that could radically change the ways that we think of "alternative energy." These projects encompass 17 states. More than half of the recipients are universities. Funded via the "Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy" (ARPA-E), the projects focused on three areas:
1. "Electrofuels" -- a fourth-generation process that utilizes organisms that can extract energy from unconventional sources like hydrogren, metal ions, and solar-derived electricity, rather than biomass. The DOE also calls this direct solar fuel.
2. Advanced generations of batteries for energy storage -- ARPA-E is funding companies and institutions that are developing alternative batteries with high energy density but low cost that can be used for long-range plug-in hybrids and pure EVs.
3. Innovative materials and processes for advanced carbon capture technologies -- ARPA-E is focusing on a portfolio approach of methods for capturing carbon dioxide from power plants including membranes, gas-liquid-solid phase changes, sorbents, catalysts, and enzymes.
The metabolic enhancement of microorganisms to produce hydrocarbons from non-biomass-based feedstocks is a rather novel approach. Most of the leading fourth-generation biofuel companies that utilize bio-chemical approaches are modifying the genetic structure of the organism to transform a sugar substrate and secrete either pure "drop in" fuels like diesel, gasoline, or jet fuel, or gasoline substitutes like ethanol or biobutanol (see LS9:Genetically Modified E-Coli That Secrete Drop-In Diesel). Leading companies in this space include Amyris, Gevo, LS9, and Cobalt. Joule Biotechnologies, which announced a $30M series B fundraising round this week, is one of the only known "solar to fuel" companies operating beyond lab scale (see Solar + Water + CO2 = Diesel?).
Electric vehicles are burdened by the relatively poor energy density of batteries compared to gasoline. Costs are prohibitively high, though Michael Kanellos argues that battery cost declines might be accelerating. The ARPA-E program "Batteries for Electrical Energy Storage in Transportation" will focus on new materials that are easier to source and manufacture while improve energy and power density.
Coal accounts for almost 50% of U.S. electricity and a significant portion of our carbon bill. The ability to "scrub" and potentially sequester the carbon from the flue gas stream is currently an expensive proposition. The DOE is attempting to discover new catalysts and membranes that can absorb carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere in a cost-effective manner.
Here is a rundown of some of the more interesting projects:
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory - $4M - A common soil bacterium will be engineered to produce butanol and hydrocarbons from carbon dioxide and hydrogen. The organism would be able to produce its own hydrogen by splitting water in the presence of electricity. UC Berkeley and Logos Technologies will contribute to the project.
OPX Biotechnologies - $6M - Microorganisms will be engineered to use renewable hydrogen and carbon dioxide inputs to produce a biodiesel-equivalent fuel at low cost. Catalysts will be explored to convert the microbial fuel into jet fuel. NREL and Johnson Matthey Catalysts Inc. will also participate.
Pennsylvania State University and University of Kentucky- $1.5M - Hydrogen-consuming bacteria that usually derives its energy from residual light and organic waste at the bottom of ponds will be "rewired" to use electricity. The organism will be able to convert hydrogen and carbon dioxide into a bio-oil that can be refined into gasoline.
Batteries for Electrical Energy Storage in Transportation ("BEEST")
Pellion Technologies, Inc. - $3.2M - the project will develop an inexpensive, rechargeable magnesium-ion battery for electric and hybrid-electric vehicle applications. Computational methods and accelerated chemical synthesis will be used to develop new materials and chemistries.
Planar Energy Devices, Inc.- $4M - This project seeks to develop an ultra high energy, long cycle life all solid-state lithium battery that can manufactured using low cost techniques. Pilot-scale manufacturing of the batteries will be demonstrated using all inorganic materials and solid state electrolytes whose properties are similar to existing liquid electrolytes.
ReVolt Technology - $5M - A large, high-energy zinc-air flow battery will be developed to enable long range plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles. Zinc, suspended as a slurry, is stored in a tank and transported through tubes to charge and discharge the battery.
Stanford University - $1M - Researchers will seek to develop an "all-electron battery," a completely new class of electrical energy storage devices for electric vehicles. The new battery stores energy by moving electrons rather than ions and uses a novel architecture that has potential for very high energy density.
Innovative Materials & Processes for Advanced Carbon Capture Technologies ("IMPACCT")
Codexis Inc. - $4.7M - Applying biology to the problem of carbon capture, this project will use low-cost carbonic anhydrase enzymes and a novel directed evolution process to increase reactivity to capture CO2 and ability to resist degradation in the harsh flue gases of coal-fired power plants. Nexant Inc. will contribute technology to the project. This grant comes on the heals of Codexis' successful IPO.
GE Global Research Center - $3M - A novel phase change process will be developed in which a liquid absorbent changes to a solid when it adsorbs CO2. Because the CO2 is captured in solid form, it will be much easier to separate the CO2 from other flue gases and will decrease the energy required for CO2 compression and transport.
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory - $3.7M - Robotic instrumentation tools and computational algorithms will be used to accelerate the development of metal organic framework (MOF) materials that demonstrate improved selectivity of capturing CO2 and stability in withstanding the harsh flue gas environment at coal-fired power plants.
ATK - $1M - A novel technology based on rocket designs will be used to capture CO2 by passing it through a nozzle at supersonic speeds, which will cause the CO2 to precipitate out from the flue gas as a solid (dry ice). This approach could allow much lower capital costs and simpler integration with existing coal-fired power plants.
Notre Dame University - $2.6M - Solid compounds will turn into an ionic liquid when they react with CO2 and turn back into a solid when the CO2 is released. These materials require less energy than today's approaches to capturing CO2. Mid-Atlantic Technology, Research & Innovation Center will also participate.