This little-known research program Trump wants to cut is where the future is made

An embattled Department of Energy research program is delivering the next generation of technological wizardry — for now.

ARPA-E has funded research into biofuels, among other technologies. CREDIT: ARPA-E
ARPA-E has funded research into biofuels, among other technologies. CREDIT: ARPA-E

You’re sitting at your desk in shirtsleeves sweating, while the person in the cubicle next to you is wrapped in a heavy sweater. Rather than turn up the A/C, you slip into a special pair of shoes and start to cool down. Meanwhile, your shivering coworker’s sweater begins to thicken automatically.

On your way out of work, you check your phone. There’s a bus pulling up — if you take it, you can earn a discount on a future bus ride. You leave your car in the office garage and hop on public transit.

When you get home, you plug in your phone to recharge. The device features a fast-charging solid-state Lithium ion battery. Unlike your old Samsung Galaxy Note7 — which once erupted in flames — your new cell phone will never spontaneously catch on fire.

These developments sound futuristic — and they are. But they are on their way, thanks in part to a novel federal research program that supports new ways to generate, store, save, and use energy.

ARPA-E’s future is in doubt.

In 2007, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine proposed a program modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which gave us GPS, the stealth fighter and the internet. Congress approved its corollary, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), and President George W. Bush signed the authorization into law. ARPA-E began officially funding projects in 2009.

While Congress plans to increase the budget of the program by $15 million for 2017, President Trump called for the elimination of ARPA-E in his proposed budget for 2018. Scientists and business leaders fear they will lose an essential source of research funding. In an open letter addressed to ranking members of the House and Senate subcommittees on Energy and Water, a coalition of research universities and private companies wrote that “sustained funding is necessary to ensure this successful program continues to spearhead America’s energy research.”

Businesses are generally reluctant to invest in high-risk projects, even where the potential payoff is high. Through programs like ARPA-E, the federal government is investing in research the private sector won’t do. Much of this research will prove fruitless, but some will deliver new technologies, spurring the creation of new companies and new jobs.

New technologies tend to be costly at first. By funding transformative research, ARPA-E is helping the most promising innovations outperform existing technologies. CREDIT: ARPA-E
New technologies tend to be costly at first. By funding transformative research, ARPA-E is helping the most promising innovations outperform existing technologies. CREDIT: ARPA-E

“ARPA-E was successful in stimulating not only the high-tech, high-value jobs that we created with the direct funds, but now jobs in ongoing industries that have been created as part of these efforts,’’ said Saul Griffith, CEO of the San Francisco startup OtherLab, in a letter published in the Mercury News. OtherLab, a private research firm funded by an ARPA-E grant, is creating garments that expand or contract in response to body temperature. Other ARPA-E grants have gone to universities, small businesses, and nonprofits.

The proportion of ARPA-E projects headed by different kinds of institutions. FFRDC refers to federally funded research and development centers. CREDIT: ARPA-E
The proportion of ARPA-E projects headed by different kinds of institutions. FFRDC refers to federally funded research and development centers. CREDIT: ARPA-E

Critics have chastised President Trump, who promised to be “the greatest job producer God has ever created,” for pushing to eliminate ARPA-E, which is giving a boost to the private sector.

“This program was set up specifically for innovation, and to create new companies and jobs,” said Eric Wachsman, director of the University of Maryland’s Energy Research Center. Wachsman is helping to develop the new solid-state Lithium ion battery. “It’s not just creating technology, but commercializing it.”

Since its inception, ARPA-E has funded more than 400 projects, many of them on their way to the marketplace. These include the three innovations described at the top of this story. They offer a vivid example of the sort of transformative research funded by ARPA-E.

Clothes that heat and cool

Heating, ventilation and air conditioning account for around 40 percent of the energy used in a typical American household, according to SRI International, a research company working with scientists from Stanford and UCLA to design a wearable cooling device. ARPA-E is supporting their work with a $3.8 million grant.

“It takes less energy if you heat or cool people directly, rather than heat or cool an entire building,” said Roy Kornbluh, a research engineer at SRI International.

A plan for cooling footwear. CREDIT: SRI International
A plan for cooling footwear. CREDIT: SRI International

Kornbluh and his colleagues created a special shoe with a small cooling device that works like an automotive cooling system. It circulates water cooled by a battery-operated fan small enough to fit in the sole of a shoe. Consumers will be able to control the device with their smartphones. When working, “it feels like you are standing on a nice cool tile,” Kornbluh said.

Otherlab, a private research company, has invented a fabric that changes in thickness in response to temperature fluctuations, with the help of a $1.8 million ARPA-E grant. “It’s clothing that will make you comfortable, without your having to go find that sweater,” said Brent Ridley, a senior research scientist at the company.

The researchers pair together common materials like polyester and nylon, and spin the yarns in a way that allows the clothing to expand or contract in response to temperature.

Discounts for smart drivers

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are using real-time data about traffic, local weather, and other variables to encourage travelers to choose more energy-efficient modes of transportation. Their system, funded with a $3.9 million ARPA-E grant, will urge travelers to pick specific modes of travel, departure times, vehicle types, and driving styles to save energy.

But that’s not all. Travelers will earn tokens for discounted goods and services from participating companies each time they make an energy-smart decision — the more energy they save each trip, the greater the prize. Alternatively, they can swap their tokens with other users.

The sustainable travel app rewards users for saving energy. CREDIT: MIT’s Intelligent Transportation Systems Lab
The sustainable travel app rewards users for saving energy. CREDIT: MIT’s Intelligent Transportation Systems Lab

The app will customize choices to the individual’s specific likings. “If the system tells you to walk for an hour and you get sweaty, you won’t like it — that’s why we learn your preferences,” Carlos Lima Azevedo, a research scientist at MIT’s Intelligent Transportation Systems Lab. “It will only show you what you are likely to use. If you won’t give up your car, we’ll show you lots of energy-saving routes — although we may ultimately suggest a bus once in a while, because that’s where the savings will be greater.”

A safer, cheaper lithium ion battery

Lithium ion batteries are found in virtually all electronic devices. They pack a lot of punch in a very small space. The problem is that they rely on a highly flammable organic liquid electrolyte, which can erupt in flames. Lithium ion batteries have caught fire in laptops, smartphones, hover boards, Boeing 787 Dreamliners, and e-cigarettes. Samsung discontinued its popular Galaxy Note 7 smartphone last fall after a number of them exploded. The company took a financial hit estimated to be in the billions.

The ceramic battery. CREDIT: University of Maryland Energy Research Center
The ceramic battery. CREDIT: University of Maryland Energy Research Center

Researchers at the University of Maryland, supported by a $900,000 ARPA-E grant, have a developed a new Lithium ion battery with a solid electrolyte made of a ceramic which cannot burn.

Wachsman and his collaborators developed techniques to coat the ceramic, allowing the lithium metal to wet its surface and enable conductivity. The resulting battery works just as efficiently as conventional batteries. It’s also less expensive and charges quickly, Wachsman said. Initially, the battery will be sold for cell phones and laptops, but researchers also are talking to auto suppliers about eventually scaling it up for electric cars.

“Batteries are ubiquitous,” Wachsman said. “You can use batteries for almost everything, and a new, safer battery will have a huge impact on consumer products that everyone has.” Moreover, he added, eliminating ARPA-E and the work it supports, including programs to develop new batteries, “is not going to make more of us buy coal.”

UPDATE: This story has been updated to include the open letter from universities and businesses urging support for ARPA-E.

Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.