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Government’s helping hand fostering 21st energy opportunities

February 28th, 2017 · No Comments

Government programs impact people’s lives in uncountable ways. These range from those most highly visible firemen on the streets to the semi-hidden code developments that lower year after year the risks of fire in our homes. The extent to which government programs have enabled American prosperity — whether standards or legal system or technological development — is something that few actually think about on a daily lives.

How many, when pulling up Waze on their smart phone, consider that the decades-old Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) provided the conception and resources for core technology (such as ARPANET (now the Internet) and GPS) development that enables avoiding that traffic jam so they can make it to work on time?

The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), partially modeled after and developed with the lessons from DARPA, is less than a decade old but is showing its power in helping to leapfrog energy technologies in ways that could powerfully impact U.S. society, the US economy, and U.S. global competitiveness for decades to come.

This week, ARPA-E is holding its annual Energy Innovation Summit which provides a variety of windows on both ARPA-Es approaches to fostering leap-ahead (potentially disruptive) energy technology and programs along with the chance to kick the tires on many of these.

As to kicking tires in the Technology Showcase, the floor is filled with items to fascinate the ‘tech geek’ that provide windows on ways that could impact people’s lives in ways that few really consider.

Here are two examples from that tech showcase:

  • Innovative ways to improve personal comfort
    • ARPAE is tackling the spectrum of energy challenges and opportunities including how to improve both the energy efficiency and comfort for people in the built space and, well, beyond.  Typically most would think of this as improving ‘the’ building (insulation (which ARPAE is working on), building controls (again), more efficient air conditioning (again), window glazings for upgrading single pane windows to greater efficiency (lots there, including a paint option) etc…) but how about doing things that target the individual?  Within the ARPAE program are companies developing air conditioning for shoes (so that you can have a building at higher temperature while people remain comfortable … or, by the way, making soldiers more effective on the battlefield in the Middle East during summer) and clothing that adapts to temperature changes.
    • Within Otherlab is Material Comforts, “a textile that gets thicker and increases its insulation vale in response to a drop in temperature”. Imagine the middle of winter … you put on your clothing in the house warmed to 68F and walk outside to that 25F frigid cold but you don’t need to pull on a coat since your sweater expands to provide greater insulation. You get in the car and the sweater contracts as the heat kicks in.  Within the office, as you wander around and have 5-10F differences in heat, your clothing adapts — to maintain you at your personal comfort level.  Imagine … This could directly save energy (relatively unused spaces in a building might not need to be heated as much, etc, etc …) but would enable productivity (people are more comfortable, spend less time putting on/taking off clothing) … and, well, enhance people’s lives.  Material Comforts won’t be showing on the clothing rack next year but, well, perhaps by 2020 or so this will become a clothing option and could have a real impact on real people’s lives.  ARPA-E’s program is enabling its development that, well, simply might not have occurred otherwise.
  • Tobacco to Squelene
    • Squelene oil is throughout human life, especially in cosmetics. The primary squelene source: sharks.  Sharks are under global threat from overfishing — with squelene being potentially more important than the more commonly heard of ‘shark fin soup’ challenge.  Options exist other than shark livers for squelene and, despite their higher costs, many cosmetic firms use those options. But sharks are still dying for lipstick — and likely very few are aware of this as they stand in front of the mirror.
    • SynShark has developed a path to extract squalene from tobacco plants that will, on mass scale, undercut the price of squalene from shark livers.  This will enable creating alternative income paths (higher income likely) for the world’s tobacco farmers, reduce fishery devastation (from pollution to shark kills), and provide a path for lowering the cost of cosmetics around the world. The processing of the tobacco plants creates other potential value streams, including high-quality proteins and potentially materials for making biofuels.  Several years in development, Synshark is doing its first commercial demonstration (15 acres) this year with the potential for orders-of-magnitude growth over the coming few years.

Honestly, few people — even energy specialists — might have come up with the above as tangible examples of how ARPAE’s innovative approaches are opening the doors to changing lives for the better, creating US jobs, and improving US competitiveness.  However, spending a few minutes with the two firms mentioned above and the 100s of other innovators at ARPAE would convince anyone who truly cares about making America great that the ARPAE is leveraging relatively limited resources in powerful and valuable ways.

Wandering ARPAE’s Energy Innovation Summit provides chances to learn about (reasonably viable and shockingly low cost) paths toward small fusion power, coming spray painting of windows for energy efficiency without impacting visibility, transparent wood for construction (let in light without sacrificing solidity and energy efficiency), new materials technology, heating/generator combinations for the home, new wind turbine concepts (including one that could scale up to 130 megawatts, or roughly 13 times larger than the largest currently in the world), …

Wandering the Energy Innovation Summit, seeing the technologies, speaking to the innovators, and considering the possibilities can provide reasons to technological optimism for paths toward a prosperous, secure, climate-friendly future …

This is a prosperity that is there for us (for the U.S.) to seize … if we choose to do so.

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