Skip to Content

ARPA-E’s Strategy for Survival

ARPA-E faces a tricky mandate—invest in risky technologies that no one else wants to fund, while still showing results.
February 24, 2014

The U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, which began its fifth annual summit today in Washington, D.C., is meant to kick-start early-stage technologies that could transform the energy industry, replacing fossil fuels and reducing dependence on foreign energy sources. But five years after ARPA-E was first funded, is it living up to the objectives (see “What ARPA-E Can’t Do” and “What ARPA-E Does Well: Making Connections”)?

Some experts say that political pressures are making it difficult for the agency to support the risky technologies it was created to fund. ARPA-E has had bipartisan support, but it has always struggled to get funding. Last year, the House voted to give the agency just 20 percent of what it had asked for in its budget request. As it turned out, the agency got much more than that: the omnibus spending bill that passed earlier this year set aside $275 million for the agency, about 75 percent of the budget request.

Part of the agency’s challenge is that it’s feeling pressure from two sides. On the one hand, it needs to show results to justify continued funding. That’s led it to fund some projects that have a higher chance of paying off, and to taking “fewer risks than they should have,” says David Victor, director of the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation at the University of California at San Diego. But playing it safe can also bring criticism from Congress. The chief complaint from a 2012 House hearing on ARPA-E was that it was funding some projects that could have been funded by companies instead of the government.

It’s a tricky balance. “If everything worked right away, I wouldn’t be taking big enough swings,” says Cheryl Martin, ARPA-E’s acting director. But, as she tells members of Congress, “if nothing ever worked, you should stop funding us.”

To survive, Martin says, it’s important that some of the agency’s projects pay off unexpectedly fast, delivering tangible results. For example, one of the highlights of the summit’s technology showcase this year is a Toyota that’s been retrofitted with a new kind of battery charger invented by researchers at the University of Arkansas and Toyota using a $4 million ARPA-E grant—the charger is far smaller than conventional ones, and could charge batteries more quickly as well. She also points to projects that, while still a long way from market, have made enough progress that others have decided to invest in them.

Meanwhile, to keep finding areas where no one else is investing, the agency has had success with workshops that bring together people from diverse research backgrounds to create new areas of research. One recent example is bringing together researchers who work on two very different types of solar power, one that uses mirrors to concentrate sunlight and generate steam, and another that uses photovoltaics. Finding ways to combine the two could lead to solar panels that are both inexpensive and able to deliver power even when it’s not sunny—thus addressing the two biggest challenges of solar power.

Indeed, recent ARPA-E programs seem to be taking bigger risks than some of the ones announced a few years ago—one is even funding a project that will make batteries structural components of electric cars (see “Building Cars Out of Batteries Isn’t as Crazy as It Sounds”).

Although there are some short-term successes, like the Toyota retrofit, at the summit, there will be no shortage of longer-term projects that reflect ARPA-E’s ambition to truly transform energy technology. 

Keep Reading

Most Popular

Conceptual illustration of a therapy session
Conceptual illustration of a therapy session

The therapists using AI to make therapy better

Researchers are learning more about how therapy works by examining the language therapists use with clients. It could lead to more people getting better, and staying better.

street in Kabul at night
street in Kabul at night

Can Afghanistan’s underground “sneakernet” survive the Taliban?

A once-thriving network of merchants selling digital content to people without internet connections is struggling under Taliban rule.

Conceptual illustration showing a file folder with the China flag and various papers flying out of it
Conceptual illustration showing a file folder with the China flag and various papers flying out of it

The US crackdown on Chinese economic espionage is a mess. We have the data to show it.

The US government’s China Initiative sought to protect national security. In the most comprehensive analysis of cases to date, MIT Technology Review reveals how far it has strayed from its goals.

IBM engineers at Ames Research Center
IBM engineers at Ames Research Center

Where computing might go next

The future of computing depends in part on how we reckon with its past.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.