ARPA-E, or the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy, is supposed to be DOE’s version of DARPA. According to its website, its mission,
…is to fund projects that will develop transformational technologies that reduce America’s dependence on foreign energy imports; reduce U.S. energy related emissions (including greenhouse gasses); improve energy efficiency across all sectors of the U.S. economy and ensure that the U.S. maintains its leadership in developing and deploying advanced energy technologies.
So far, it has not come up with anything quite as “transformational” as the Internet or stealth technology. There is good reason for this. Its source selection people are decidedly weak in the knees. Consider the sort of stuff it’s funded in the latest round of contract awards. The people at DARPA would probably call it “workman like.” H. L. Mencken, the great Sage of Baltimore, would more likely have called it “pure fla fla.” For example, there are “transformational” systems to twiddle with natural gas storage that the industry, not exactly short of cash at the moment, would have been better left to develop on its own, such as,
Liquid-Piston Isothermal Home Natural Gas Compressor
Chilled Natural Gas At-Home Refueling
Superplastic-Formed Gas Storage Tanks
There is the “transformational” university research that is eye-glazingly mundane, and best reserved as filler for the pages of obscure academic journals, such as,
Cell-level Power Management of Large Battery Packs
Health Management System for Reconfigurable Battery Packs
Optimal Operation and Management of Batteries Based on Real Time Predictive Modeling and Adaptive Battery Management Techniques.
There is some “groundbreaking” stuff under the rubric of “build a better magnet, and the world will beat a pathway to your door.”
Manganese-Based Permanent Magnet with 40 MGOe at 200°C
Rare‐Earth‐Free Permanent Magnets for Electrical Vehicle Motors and Wind Turbine Generators: Hexagonal Symmetry Based Materials Systems Mn‐Bi and M‐type Hexaferrite
Discovery and Design of Novel Permanent Magnets using Non-strategic Elements having Secure Supply Chains
…and so on. Far be it for me to claim that any of this research is useless. It is, however, also what the people at DARPA would call “incremental,” rather than transformational. Of course, truly transformational ideas don’t grow on trees, and DARPA also funds its share of “workmanlike” projects, but at least the source selection people there occasionally go out on a limb. In the work funded by ARPA-E, on the other hand, I can find nothing that might induce the bureaucrats on Secretary Chu’s staff to swallow their gum.
If the agency is really serious about fulfilling its mission, it might consider some of the innovative ideas out there for harnessing fusion energy. All of them can be described as “high risk, high payoff,” but isn’t that the kind of work ARPA-E is supposed to be funding? According to a recent article on the Science Magazine website, the White House has proposed cutting domestic fusion research by 16%to help pay for the U.S. contribution to the international fusion experiment, ITER, under construction in Cadarache, France. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, ITER is second only to the International Space Station as the greatest white elephant of all time, and is similarly vacuuming up funds that might otherwise have supported worthwhile research in several other countries. All the more reason to give a leg up to fusion, a technology that has bedeviled scientists for decades, but that could potentially supply mankind’s energy needs for millennia to come. Ideas being floated at the moment include advanced fusor concepts such as the Bussard polywell, magneto-inertial fusion, focus fusion, etc. None of them look particularly promising to me, but if any of them pan out, the potential payoff is huge. I’ve always been of the opinion that, if we ever do harness fusion energy, it will be by way of some such clever idea rather than by building anything like the current “conventional” inertial or magnetic fusion reactor designs.
When it comes to conventional nuclear energy, we are currently in the process of being left in the dust by countries like India and China. Don’t expect any help from industry here. They are in the business to make a profit. There’s certainly nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but at the moment, profits are best maximized by building light water reactors that consume the world’s limited supply of fissile uranium 235 without breeding more fuel to replace it, and spawn long-lived and highly radioactive transuranic actinides in the process that it will be necessary to find a way to safely store for thousands of years into the future. This may be good for profits, but it’s definitely bad for future generations. Alternative designs exist that would breed as much new fuel as they consume, be intrinsically safe against meltdown, would destroy the actinides along with some of the worst radioactive fission products, and would leave waste that could be potentially less radioactive than the original ore in a matter of a few hundred years. DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy already funds some research in these areas. Unfortunately, in keeping with the time-honored traditions of government research funding, they like to play it safe, funneling awards to “noted experts” who tend to keep plodding down well-established paths even when they are clearly leading to dead ends. ITER and the International Space Station are costly examples of where that kind of thinking leads. If it were really doing its job, an agency like ARPA-E might really help to shake things up a little.
Finally, we come to that scariest of boogeymen of “noted experts” the world over; cold fusion, or, as some of its advocates more reticently call it, Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR). Following the initial spate of excitement on the heels of the announcement by Pons and Fleischmann of excess heat in their experiments with palladium cells, the scientific establishment agreed that such ideas were to be denounced as heretical. Anathemas and interdicts rained down on their remaining proponents. Now, I must admit that I don’t have much faith in LENR myself. I happened to attend the Cold Fusion Workshop in Sante Fe, NM which was held in 1989, not long after the Pons/Fleischmann bombshell, and saw and heard some memorably whacky posters and talks. I’ve talked to several cold fusion advocates since then, and some appeared perfectly sober, but an unsettlingly large proportion of others seemed to be treading close to the lunatic fringe. Just as fusion energy is always “30 years in the future,” cold fusion proponents have been claiming that their opponents will be “eating crow in six months” ever since 1989. Some very interesting results have been reported. Unfortunately, they haven’t been reproducible.
For all that, LENR keeps hanging around. It continues to find advocates among those who, for one reason or another, aren’t worried about their careers, or lack respect for authority, or are just downright contrarians. The Science of Low Energy Nuclear Reactions by Edmund Storms is a useful source for the history of and evidence for LENR. Websites run by the cold fusion faithful may be found here and here. Recently, stories have begun cropping up again in “respectable” mags, such as Forbes and Wired. Limited government funding has been forthcoming from NASA Langley and, at least until recently, from the Navy at its Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR). Predictably, such funding is routinely attacked as support for scientific quackery. The proper response to that from the source selection folks at ARPA-E should be, “So what?” After all,
ARPA-E was created to be a catalyst for innovation. ARPA-E’s objective is to tap into the risk-taking American ethos and to identify and support the pioneers of the future. With the best research and development infrastructure in the world, a thriving innovation ecosystem in business and entrepreneurship, and a generation of youth that is willing to engage with fearless intensity, the U.S. has all the ingredients necessary for future success. The goal of ARPA-E is to harness these ingredients and make a full-court press to address the U.S.’s technological gaps and leapfrog over current energy approaches.
The best way to “harness these ingredients and make a full-court press” is not by funding of the next round of incremental improvements in rare earth magnets. Throwing a few dollars to the LENR people, on the other hand, will certainly be “high risk,” but it just might pan out. I hope the people at ARPA-E can work up the minimal level of courage it takes to do so. If the Paris fashions can face down ridicule, so can they. If they lack the nerve, then DOE would probably do better to terminate its bad imitation of DARPA and feed the money back to its existing offices. They can continue funding mediocrity just as well as ARPA-E.