Cooling and crops: US offers $60 million for radical new energy technology

Department of Energy looks to get cool, grow biomass alternatives quicker


Far-reaching changes in the way we cool large structures and make alternative energy products are driving $60 million worth of research and product development from the Department of Energy.

Specifically, the DOE’s advanced research group Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) this week announced two programs, one that would focus on developing low-cost, highly efficient and scalable dry-cooling technologies for thermoelectric power plants and another to advance automated systems-level technology that would speed improvement of plant biomass crops to increase alternative fuel options.

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The first new program, Advanced Research In Dry cooling (ARID) will invest $30 million to develop power plant cooling technologies that allow more efficient thermal-to-electric energy conversion with zero net water dissipation to the atmosphere.  Of particular interest to this program are technologies that incorporate air cooling, sorption-based cooling, multimode (convection/radiant) cooling, large capacity cool storage, or any other innovative heat rejection technology, ARPA-E stated.

“The U.S. electric power industry has relied primarily on water cooling technologies to remove low grade heat from thermoelectric power plants. Of these technologies, cooling towers and spray ponds dissipate a substantial amount of water into the atmosphere via evaporation. It is anticipated that within a 20 year time horizon a combination of environmental concerns, increased water demand due to population growth, and the impact of climate change will significantly constrain the available water supply that can be allocated to power plant cooling,“ the group wrote.

The United States is heavily reliant on water to cool its thermoelectric power plants, yet the future promises both reduced water availability and more stringent requirements to maintain water quality, ARPA-E stated. Continued dominant reliance on water for cooling is therefore risky and undesirable. Moreover, making thermoelectric power plants more independent from the nation’s water supply infrastructure, while operating with high efficiency, can yield significant benefits to agricultural, municipal, and industrial sectors.

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The other $30 million will go into the Transportation Energy Resources from Renewable Agriculture (TERRA) program.

The overall objective of the TERRA program is to develop tools that enable an increase in the rate and extent of genetic improvement of the yield of bioenergy crops grown in the field. If successful, the program will enhance land use efficiency, reduce competition between bioenergy and food crops, improve environmental sustainability, and provide a more stable supply of biomass for transportation fuels and bio-refineries,” ARPA-E stated.

ARPA-E said it is looking towards advancements in automation, sensor technologies, computational analytics develop innovative systems that enable (a) new predictive algorithms for plant growth, (b) more detailed measurements for plant physiology, and (c) more sophisticated bioinformatics pipelines for gene discovery and trait association. TERRA will let breeders evaluate more individual plants, to select appropriate plants for breeding earlier in the growing season, to capture better information about them during their development, and to associate this information with the best genes to propagate.

“There is an urgent need to accelerate energy crop development for the production of renewable transportation fuels from biomass. Recent technological advancements have now made it possible to extract massive volumes of genetic, physiological, and environmental data from certain crops, but, even with these resources, the data still cannot be processed into the knowledge needed to predict crop performance in the field,” the group stated. 

Fuel used in the U.S. transportation sector has become more diverse in the past several years. While gasoline remains the dominant fuel, the market penetration of diesel, biofuels, and hybrid-electric systems is growing, eroding gasoline’s share of the light duty vehicle fuel market. This trend is too slow to reduce energy-related CO2 emissions: petroleum remains, by far, the largest source of transportation fuel in the world, a significant, but non-renewable, resource, ARPA-E said.

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