ARPA-E is investing in moonshot energy ideas that are so audacious, they might just change how we power our society.
Batteries made with chemicals that we mine from rhubarb plants, rather than expensive metals taken out of the earth. Magnets that clip onto electrical lines and reroute electrons. Solar panels that work efficiently even when they get hot or are shaded. These are just a few of the advanced energy research projects in the works that could bring the promise of a future electricity grid that is decentralized, resilient, and less carbon-heavy closer to a reality.
All are projects of ARPA-E, a young federal agency created just five years ago as the U.S. Department of Energy’s analog to DARPA, the military’s research agency that funds the development of mind-reading science, cyborgs, and deadly robots. Similarly, ARPA-E’s mission is to fund big, risky ideas in energy that might have trouble otherwise getting off the ground because they haven’t been proven to work yet. This year, it had a $280 million annual budget (still small compared to the overall $5 billion budgeted for the Energy Department’s Office of Science). It has funded a total 362 projects since its beginning.
“We’re trying to take really crazy ideas … and we get it from the impossible to the plausible. That’s an important place. Once people think it’s plausible, then they can decide they want to step up and put some money to do a demonstration,” says acting director Cheryl Martin.
“We’ve taken the idea of taking big chances from being unacceptable to acceptable. Failure is becoming part of the process,” Martin says.