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Transforming Energy

How a government funding agency aims to solve the energy problem.
February 23, 2010

Radical innovation can alter the landscape of an entire industry. That’s the goal of the newly formed Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, part of the U.S. Department of Energy. Modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), ARPA-E was funded for the first time in last year’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to pursue transformational solutions to the energy problem.

ARPA-E was originally proposed in a National Academies report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm. Energy Secretary Steven Chu–then director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory–was part of the committee that proposed to create a nimble, creative agency.

After President Obama announced this effort in April, we received nearly 3,700 submissions. Five hundred expert reviewers put in nearly 8,700 hours to choose 37 projects–1 percent of the submissions.

The projects were selected through the most rigorous peer review process the DOE has engaged in. Secretary Chu sent a letter to the presidents of major research universities and the heads of the engineering societies asking them to name the best scientists and engineers in the country. We asked these people to serve as reviewers, arguing simply that this work was part of their patriotic duty to our country and the world.

We are now hiring top practicing scientists and engineers to serve as program directors. In addition to guiding the projects, they will seek out additional areas that are ripe for breakthroughs.

The 37 projects we’re funding span the spectrum–renewable energy, energy storage, industrial and building efficiency, petroleum-free vehicles, carbon capture (for some companies addressing these issues, see the TR50). The ideas are potentially revolutionary. They are risky, and many of them will fail. But this is high-risk, high-reward research: if one or two ideas lead to transformative technologies, it will be among the best investments we’ve ever made.

We are determined to attract the best and brightest minds to solving the energy problem. This is truly the scientific and engineering challenge of our time. Scientists and engineers have come to our nation’s aid in past times of need, and it is time for them to do so again.

The stakes could not be higher. Great ideas have transformed our world before. But new great ideas on energy might do more than just change our world–they might help save it.

Arun Majumdar was appointed director of ARPA-E in October 2009.

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