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Five New Government-Backed Energy Projects that Stand Out

Sixty-six new energy research projects were announced on Wednesday. Here are some interesting ones.
November 28, 2012

The U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E)—one of the few government agencies with solid, bipartisan support in Congress—announced 66 new research projects on Wednesday that will collectively receive $130 million. Here are five projects from the list that stand out.

Liquid fuel from natural gas

The most striking difference between this set of ARPA-E research awards and previous ones is the explosion of natural-gas-related projects, something no doubt prompted by the surge of natural gas production in the United States.

Several projects to receive funding propose to develop technology to inexpensively convert natural gas into chemicals and fuels that are liquid at room temperature. This is something researchers have been trying to do for decades, in part because a cheap way to use natural gas in conventional engines would greatly decrease oil imports. Among these projects is a nearly $4 million award to Pratt & Whitney to develop an approach that would partially oxidize natural gas at high temperatures and pressures in a gas turbine, creating compounds that could more easily be converted to liquid fuel. One of the benefits of the process, the company says, is that the turbine could, at the same time, be used to generate electricity.

A possible solution to the rare-earth crisis

Rare-earth materials are vital to the manufacture of wind turbines, hybrid cars, and consumer electronics due to their powerful magnetic properties. But they are also expensive and come almost entirely from China, which sometimes restricts exports.

Electron Energy, based in Landisville, Pennsylvania, is getting $3 million to develop a new manufacturing process that could greatly reduce the amount of rare-earth materials needed for the magnets. The idea is to seed cheaper materials with tiny particles of rare-earth materials, using the magnetic field from these particles to change the magnetic properties of the surrounding material.

“The magic sauce is knowing how to get the right material with the right atomic structure to propagate the magnetic field,” says Eric Toone, ARPA-E’s director.

Electron Energy is also focused on keeping down the cost of manufacturing the new materials. “It has to be cheap,” adds U.S. energy secretary Steven Chu. “We can hand-tailor this material, building it atom by atom, but that’s not cheap.”

Cheaper superconductors

In a similar project, Grid Logic of Lapeer, Michigan, is receiving nearly $4 million to create cheaper superconductors by using superconducting particles to improve the superconducting properties of other less expensive materials. This could make it more practical to transport power over long distances, helping to enable renewable power like wind.

Wind turbines made of cloth

The bigger the wind turbine, the more efficient it can be. But the size of wind turbines is limited by the challenge of delivering extremely long wind turbine blades, which have to be maneuvered through towns and under power lines to reach a turbine.

GE Water and Power is getting nearly $4 million to develop a new kind of wind turbine blade made of cloth stretched over a frame. The blades could be shipped in pieces and assembled on site, making larger wind turbines more practical.

Halving natural gas use at power plants

If you could burn natural gas in pure oxygen, at extremely high temperatures, you could greatly improve the efficiency of power plants, cutting fuel consumption in half while keeping pollution under control. But the high temperatures could melt the materials usually used in gas turbines.

Pratt & Whitney is receiving $600,000 to apply its experience with liquid-fueled rocket engines to develop a cooling system that could make such turbines practical. It’s one of the smallest awards from ARPA-E, but the impact of cutting fuel consumption in half would, of course, be huge.

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