US goes after some game-changing energy projects

US energy department looks to develop thermal power storage, rare earth alternatives, and the energy equivalent of an Internet router

Taking aim at developing some progressive energy technologies the US Department of Energy said it will write a $130 million check to develop five areas, including plants engineered to replace oil, thermal power storage, rare earth alternatives and what it calls the energy equivalent of an Internet router.

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The DOE's unique research group, Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) will oversee the projects.  ARPA-E, the energy-research program modeled after the US military's DARPA unit which too seeks to hit upon high-risk, high-reward technologies.

In this case ARPA-E will be overseeing the following, from the agency's report:

  • Plants Engineered To Replace Oil (PETRO). Technologies for low-cost production of advanced biofuels are limited by the small amount of available energy captured by photosynthesis and the inefficient processes used to convert plant matter to fuel. PETRO aims to create plants that capture more energy from sunlight and convert that energy directly into fuels. ARPA-E will fund technologies that optimize the biochemical processes of energy capture and conversion to develop farm-ready crops that deliver more energy per acre with less processing prior to the pump. If successful, PETRO will create biofuels for half their current cost, finally making them cost-competitive with fuels from oil. Up to $30 million will be made available for this program area.
  • High Energy Advanced Thermal Storage (HEATS). More than 90% of energy technologies involve the transport and conversion of thermal energy. Advancements in thermal energy storage - both hot and cold - would dramatically improve performance for a variety of critical energy applications. ARPA-E seeks to develop revolutionary cost-effective thermal energy storage technologies in three focus areas: 1) high temperature storage systems to deliver solar electricity more efficiently around the clock and allow nuclear and fossil resources the flexibility to meet peak demand, 2) fuel produced from the sun's heat, and 3) HVAC systems that use thermal storage to improve the driving range of electric vehicles by up to 40%. Up to $30 million will be made available for this program area.
  • Rare Earth Alternatives in Critical Technologies (REACT). Rare earths are naturally-occurring minerals with unique magnetic properties that are used in many emerging energy technologies. As demand for these technologies continues to increase, rare earths are rapidly becoming more expensive due to limited global supply - prices of many have increased 300-700% in the past year. Rising rare earth prices have already escalated costs for some energy technologies and may jeopardize the widespread adoption of many critical energy solutions by US manufacturers. ARPA-E seeks to fund early-stage technology alternatives that reduce or eliminate the dependence on rare earth materials by developing substitutes in two key areas: electric vehicle motors and wind generators. Up to $30 million will be made available for this program area.
  • Green Electricity Network Integration (GENI). Recent advances in computation, networking, and grid monitoring have shed light on potential ways to deliver electricity more efficiently and reliably. Today, however, the equivalent of one out of every five electricity dollars is lost to power outages and 30% of the grid's hardware needs replacing. ARPA-E seeks to fund innovative control software and high-voltage hardware to reliably control the grid, specifically: 1) controls able to manage 10 times more sporadically available wind and solar electricity than currently on the grid, and 2) resilient power flow control hardware - or the energy equivalent of an internet router - to enable significantly more electricity through the existing network of transmission lines. Up to $30 million will be made available for this program area.
  • Solar Agile Delivery of Electrical Power Technology (Solar ADEPT). The DOE SunShot Initiative leverages the unique strengths across DOE to reduce the total cost of utility-scale solar systems by 75% by the end of 2020. If successful, this collaboration would deliver solar electricity at roughly 6 cents a kilowatt hour - a cost competitive with electricity from fossil fuels. This would enable solar electricity to scale without subsidies and make the US globally competitive in solar technology. ARPA-E's portion of the collaboration is the Solar ADEPT program, which focuses on integrating advanced power electronics into solar panels and solar farms to extract and deliver energy more efficiently. Specifically, ARPA-E aims to invest in key advances in magnetics, semiconductor switches, and charge storage, which could reduce power conversion costs by up to 50% for utilities and 80% for homeowners. Up to $10 million will be made available for this program area.

In related news, ARPA-E this month signed an agreement with Duke Energy and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) that would let agency-funded technologies be tried out in real world environments. Under the terms of the agreement, ARPA-E will allow the exchange of information between ARPA-E-supported projects, EPRI and Duke Energy, which delivers energy to approximately 4 million US customers in five states. Duke Energy could deploy and test ARPA-E technologies at various power plants or wind farms. The technologies may also be studied at the company's McAlpine substation, a test bed for renewable, grid storage and smart grid technologies, or at the company's Envision Center, a smart grid demonstration and testing facility in Erlanger, KY.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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