Eric Toone, who took the reins of the ARPA-E agency earlier this summer, has a few thoughts on where energy research should go.
ARPA-E is a Department of Energy research agency with a mission of funding risky technology ideas with the potential to improve energy security and reduce emissions from energy. Since it start three years ago, the research agency has generated a number of promising technologies in a range of areas, such as batteries, cost-effective biofuels, and more efficient buildings.
In an interview, Toone, who took over from ARPA-E’s first director Arun Majumdar, says his main priority as principal deputy director is to bring in the top-notch research scientists ARPA-E has become known for. Those program directors oversee the progress of grant awardees, which could be businesses, universities, or national laboratories. ARPA-E projects are designed to bring a scientific advance closer to the marketplace by producing a first prototype or demonstration within a few years. Like the Department of Defense’s DARPA agency, ARPA-E programs are stopped if the research team isn’t meeting technical and commercial milestones.
In the months ahead, ARPA-E plans on forming research programs in areas where the private sector isn’t already working and there’s the potential for a big jump in performance, says Toone, who is also a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Duke University. Program ideas now being discussed include:
ARPA-E was created in 2007 and initially funded through the stimulus in 2009. Since then, it has funded about 200 projects with relatively small grants typically a few million dollars. (See, Can ARPA-E Solve Energy’s Problems?)
In general, the research agency has enjoyed the support of both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. Last year, for example, its budget was increased to $275 million after being reduced to $180 million in 2011. But its political support warrants close watching for people interested in energy innovation.
Energy and the role of government in energy is becoming a big topic in the presidential debate. The Obama administration and Energy Secretary Steven Chu are staunch supporters of ARPA-E; the administration requested to increase ARPA-E’s 2013 budget to $350 million. Mitt Romney’s energy position mentions ARPA-E as well, saying it should focus on basic research.
Toone can’t predict which way ARPA-E’s budget will go in the years ahead, but says ARPA-E would benefit from consistent funding. “It would not be helpful, for instance, if someone tripled our budget next year. What we need is steady, sustained growth that will let us continue to ramp up at a manageable pace.”