Mar 23, 2023
Carbon-Eating Cement Gets Spotlight at DOE's Bleeding-Edge Expo
(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden’s climate goal of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century will require some out-of-the-box thinking. That’s where an arm of the US Department of Energy that’s funded flying wind turbines and clothing inspired by squid skin fits in.
The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, is holding its annual summit near Washington, DC this week, featuring a host of experimental technologies and music courtesy of a robotic DJ.
ARPA-E was modeled after the US Department of Defense research shop credited with helping develop the Internet and GPS. It finances game-changing energy projects that are too risky to get private sector investment.
The agency has doled out some $3.3 billion to more than 1,400 projects since 2009. They include an intestine-like storage tank for natural gas vehicles and transportation fuel made partly from bacteria.
Among more recent efforts is a bio-mining project for critical minerals, which uses engineered microbes that adsorb rare earth elements needed for renewables and batteries. Another is a process developed by the company Brimstone Energy to make carbon-negative cement using calcium silicate rock instead of carbon-heavy limestone, removing carbon from the air during the process.
“I think the problems we are working on require your imagination,” Evelyn Wang, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who was recently confirmed to lead the agency, said in an interview.
Before her appointment, Wang received ARPA-E funding four times — including for a thermal battery project designed to extend the range of electric vehicles that won the backing of Ford Motor Co., which is working on the technology.
“It was a pivotal moment in my career,” Wang said in her address to a ballroom of more than 2,000 researchers, investors, company founders and government officials. “That’s what ARPA-E is here for.”
Wang, in the interview, said future areas of interest could include how to tap into potentially vast stores of natural hydrogen buried under the ground, an opportunity fraught with technological and scientific challenges. If successful, a cheap source of carbon-free fuel could be pulled from the earth.
“The question is: Can you actually extract it?” Wang said.
ARPA-E projects have led to some $11 billion in private sector funding, the formation of 131 companies and 934 patents, according to the Energy Department. But they haven’t all been successes. Projects that have been cancelled include a plan to convert carbon dioxide to ethanol and a transparent window film to improve thermal insulation.
In 2017, then-President Donald Trump proposed eliminating the program, which was authorized by legislation signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2007, but Congress ended up boosting its funding by $15 million instead. President Joe Biden’s budget request released earlier this month proposes increasing the agency’s $470 million budget by 38%.
House Republicans are already vowing to use their new majority to conduct stringent oversight of Energy Department spending.
The agency’s technology showcase, which filled a giant room at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, had the air of a science fair, but with beer and ice cream from coolers. A robot named YuMi, developed by ABB Ltd, worked the turntables while inventors showed off their creations amid buffets of pizza and tacos and several open bars.
“ARPA-E is a really good endorsement that the technology has some merit and has some legs toward commercialization,” said Ed Lovelace, the chief technology officer of electric airplane developer Ampaire Inc., as a model of its Eco Caravan plane stood behind him.
The company, which has won multiple ARPA-E awards, is testing a nine-seat hybrid-electric plane that uses a battery pack located in its cargo pod and has raised around $30 million, Lovelace said.
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