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Will ARPA-E Succeed?

The new agency will face significant challenges in promoting radical new energy technologies
October 27, 2009

The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) is finally getting off the ground. Although created during the Bush administration, the agency only recently got its first director and this week its first funded projects were announced. But there are serious questions about whether the agency can succeed.

Its mission is to identify “revolutionary advances in fundamental sciences,” then translate these advances into “technological innovations,” particularly in areas where industry won’t do this on its own because the technology is considered too risky. In some ways ARPA-E is supposed to be for energy technologies what DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is for the military. That agency had its hand in the development of a number of revolutionary new technologies, including Arpanet, the precursor to the Internet.

The first batch of ARPA-E projects is certainly fascinating. It includes projects that could improve the performance of current energy technologies by many times, slashing the cost of solar panels and batteries, for example. If they succeed, the world could be a different place. Renewable energy could out-compete fossil fuels without the help of subsidies and long-range electric cars could become widely affordable, challenging the dominance of the internal combustion engine.

By design, the program managers at ARPA-E have picked risky projects. But have they picked the best risky projects? That would require reviewers that have an unusual combination of skills and experience. Ideally you’d have people who are both the very best scientists in their fields and who have had extensive experience in industry. The latter is particularly important because academics often aren’t privy to the latest advances in industrial labs. They sometimes publish work tackling problems industry has already solved. Conversely, people with only industrial experience might not be open to radically new ideas as an academic free to explore longer-term, and riskier, possibilities.

The problem is that the ARPA-E process, by necessity, disqualified some of the very best potential reviewers. Many brilliant academics are likely to have founded their own companies that might compete with applicants. Quite rightly, those connected with potentially competing companies were banned as reviewers–but as a result, some of the best potential technologies may have slipped through the cracks, while some companies that have almost no chance of success may have received money.

The other issue is in the difference between the energy industry and the military. The military is willing to pay top dollar for radical technologies that give it a significant advantage. It’s also more authoritarian–it can dictate changes from the top.

In energy, you’ve got to create technologies that are cheap and convenient enough to take on entrenched fossil fuel power plants and internal combustion engines and so on, which already have extensive infrastructure in place. You’ve also got to produce something that utilities–which are extremely risk averse–are willing to take on. And you’ve got to deal with consumers who are reluctant to change their routines.

All this could mean some really exciting possibilities simply won’t work–because the materials required are too expensive, for example, or can’t be found in large enough quantities, or because the technology would require consumers to change habits too much. For example, a very cheap and efficient new engine might not succeed if it requires consumers to take the simple step of filling two separate fuel tanks with two different fuels. The point is that projects funded DARPA-like, with an eye for really radical ideas, might lead to technologies that won’t succeed in the market.

So, anyway, these are the challenges–and I’m curious what people think about them. I know for example that some people have good arguments as to why the energy industry versus the military differences might not really be a big problem–I just can’t remember those arguments, or where I heard them.

And having just enumerated the challenges, I still can’t help but be excited about these ARPA-E projects. Maybe they’ll all fail. But if even one succeeds it could transform society. So in the next several weeks, look for a series of stories from TR digging into some of these projects.

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