The Mix: ARPA-E Director Arun Majumdar
The U.S. pioneered many of the clean energy technologies used today around the world. But five years ago, when an elite group of scientists warned America was falling behind foreign competitors, Congress responded by creating the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E) to help fund the development of breakthrough energy technologies.
Anchor Thalia Assuras talks with ARPA-E Director Arun Majumdar about the energy challenges America faces from other countries and how the U.S. can “out-innovate” its competitors to spur new economic growth.
[ASSURAS] This week, a relatively new federal agency announced $156 million in grants to speed the development of new, cutting-edge energy technologies. The money came from the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy — ARPA-E for short. It was established four years ago after an elite group of scientists sounded the alarm that America is falling behind as an energy innovator. Steering the ship and doling out the cash for projects that could change our energy future and security is a former scientist turned politician of sorts. Meet Arun Majumdar.
Call him a champion of risk taking who considers failure a badge of honor.
[ARUN MAJUMDAR, DIRECTOR, ARPA-E] The United States always had the history of pioneers, of entrepreneurs, of trying something and not be afraid of failure.
[ASSURAS] Since his agency first secured funding in 2009, Arun Majumdar has relished spending taxpayers’ money to make America first in the global race to clean, reliable, affordable energy. It’s his job, actually. A message he takes to military forums…
[MAJUMDAR] Just like we did for jeans. Hollywood? We need to do that… for clean energy technologies.
[ASSURAS] …and gatherings of college students alike…
[MAJUMDAR] Governor and Mr. Secretaries, these are the rock stars of the future.
[ASSURAS] …where the Majumdar mantra is picked up by his boss, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, and other big energy leaders.
[ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER, FORMER CALIFORNIA GOVERNOR] As an immigrant coming to America for the simple reason that America was the number-one place, so I despise seeing any other country being ahead of us.
[ASSURAS] Getting to the goal line, though, comes down to the cash. Of the thousands who apply for government grants, only a handful are selected.
Most of the projects at universities, or different places?
[MAJUMDAR] About one-third, roughly one-third is at universities. One-third is at small startup companies that spun out of universities.
[ASSURAS] The agency is modeled after the Defense Department’s decades’ old DARPA. That agency is credited with producing innovations we take for granted today — the Internet and GPS — and it’s that innovative spirit Majumdar hopes to tap.
[MAJUMDAR] We sent the first people to the Moon, right? We were the first ones to make the transistor and the integrated circuit and first people to make the Internet, right? Why are we behind in energy?
[ASSURAS] In the four rounds of funding, 181 ventures have received grants of $550,000 to $9 million.
What do you think are going to be the big game changers?
[MAJUMDAR] Well, you’re asking me which of my kids are going to run the 100-meters in 9 seconds. [Chuckles] It’s hard for me to say at this point.
[ASSURAS] But this Ph.D. of mechanical engineering admits an exciting venture is the next generation of batteries. They’re expected to be more powerful, lighter, and even cheaper than what we use now.
[MAJUMDAR] Lithium air batteries. This is the Holy Grail for batteries. The highest, about 20 times more energy density than today’s lithium ion batteries.
[ASSURAS] Other projects focus on cheaper, more efficient semiconductors for hybrid and electric vehicles and growing of biodiesel. One company found a new way to harness wind energy. And another thinks it’s found a way to store it.
[DAVID MARCUS, PRESIDENT, GENERAL COMPRESSION] ARPA-E was looking for storage technologies that would enable renewables to come into the marketplace in a bigger way.
[ASSURAS] David Marcus, the president of General Compression, says $750,000 from ARPA-E was enough to build a machine that he couldn’t reveal for proprietary reasons. But the overall plan is this. Unused wind energy is used to compress air, which is then stored in underground salt caverns. When electricity is needed, the air expands through a generator, and here’s the key — without burning fuel.
[MARCUS] We’re about 70% to 75% round-trip efficient. And our business plan is to marry that storage technology with utility-scale wind farms so the two of them together can sell dispatchable power.
[ASSURAS] The ARPA-E-backed idea was enough to attract $12 million in private investment.
Is it a government stamp of approval that says you’re going to succeed?
[MARCUS] There’s no such thing, and what it is, is it’s a government review that has said, “You’re not obviously ridiculous. Your idea has some merit.”
[ASSURAS] And Marcus credits Arun Majumdar as the driving force that could push the concept toward potential large-scale commercial success.
[MARCUS] I don’t know that there’d be an ARPA-E without Arun. He’s doing hero’s work.
[ASSURAS] You know, David Marcus of General Compression said to me — of you, specifically — he said, “Arun is doing hero’s work.”
[MAJUMDAR] Oh, well, thank you. They’re the ones that are actually doing the work, though.
[ASSURAS] And while they do do the work, Majumdar is keeping his eye on the goal.
[MAJUMDAR] I consider this the future of our nation. This is our children and grandchildren. Their security depends on what we do in energy. Because if we get that right, we’ll ensure security for our children and grandchildren.
[ASSURAS] Majumdar reminds everyone that energy technologies are, in his words, “the biggest business opportunity out there.” But it’s an expensive one and getting money from Congress hasn’t been easy. ARPA-E asked for $300 million in funding for 2011. Congress approved a little more than half that — $180 million.