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ARPA-E Makes First Awards

Richard M. Jones
Number 134 - November 9, 2009  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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Action B-5: Create in the Department of Energy an organization like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) called the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). The director of ARPA-E would report to the under secretary for science and would be charged with sponsoring specific research and development programs to meet the nation’s
long-term energy challenges. The new agency would support creative ‘out-of-the-box’ transformational generic energy research that industry by itself cannot or will not support and in which risk may be high but success would provide dramatic benefits for the nation. This would accelerate the process by which knowledge obtained through research is transformed to create jobs and address environmental, energy, and security issues.” - “Rising Above the Gathering Storm”

In October 2005, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future” was released before a standing-room-only audience by a committee chaired by Norman Augustine. One of its key recommendations was the establishment of a new agency within the Department of Energy to support “‘out-of-the-box’ transformational generic energy research.” After much effort legislation authorizing this agency was passed, followed by another effort to secure funding. Four years after the committee recommendation was made, Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced ARPA-E’s first $151 million in research grants.

“With ARPA-E, we are swinging from the heels and trying to hit home runs, not just base hits” Chu said in his October 26 remarks at the headquarters of Google, Inc. Briefly describing four of the research awards that ARPA-E will fund, Chu explained, “These ideas are potentially revolutionary. Yes, they are risky, and many of these technologies will not pan out. But this is high-risk, high reward research: if even one or two of these ideas become transformative technologies – the next transistor or another Green Revolution – this will be among the best investments we’ve ever made.”

Translating the Action B-5 recommensdation into a funded agency was a long process, with important support provided by House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN). His predecessor, Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) was unenthusiastic about an attempt made by Gordon to include an ARPA-E provision in energy legislation moving through the science committee in 2006. Gordon’s rise to the chairmanship of the committee gave ARPA-E the boost it needed to be included in the America COMPETES Act enacted in August 2007, despite concerns raised about the need for the new agency by the Bush Administration.

The next step in getting ARPA-E running was securing sufficient funding to allow the agency to make grants. In February of this year, the new agency received $400 million in the economic stimulus legislation. The Administration requested $10 million for ARPA-E for FY 2010, which the appropriators declined to fund without explanation in their final Energy and Water Development conference report. House appropriators explained their reasoning in an earlier committee report as follows:

“The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided $400 million for the establishment of the Advanced Research Projects Agency--Energy (ARPA-E). The Committee believes that, in addition to the fiscal year 2009 appropriation of $15,000,000 (for program direction), this funding will allow ARPA-E to fund its first round of projects beginning in fiscal year 2010 and provides an appropriate foundation of project funding as ARPA-E ramps-up to full operation. The decision not to provide any additional funding for ARPA-E in fiscal year 2010 beyond the funding already provided does not in any way suggest a lack of commitment to this new program by the Committee. The Committee looks forward to ARPA-E becoming fully operational in fiscal year 2010 and beginning its important work of developing innovative and transformational energy technologies.”

The response to ARPA-E’s first Funding Opportunity Announcement in April was overwhelming, with more than 3,600 initial concept papers submitted. The agency requested 300 full applications, from which it made 37 final awards, approximately 1 percent of all papers originally filed. The lead researchers are in 17 states, with 43 percent awarded to small businesses, 35 percent to educational institutions, and 19 percent to large corporations. A list of the awards is available here. ARPA-E describes these as the “first round” of projects that will be funded by the $400 million. Its website currently states “ARPA-E's next solicitation will be coming soon. No proposals will be accepted at this time.”

Leading ARPA-E as its first director is Arun Majumdar who was confirmed by the Senate on October 21. He had served as the Associate Laboratory Director for Energy and Environment at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and as a Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering at the University of California - Berkeley, where he received his PhD in 1989.

Chairman Gordon issued the following release after Secretary Chu made his announcement:

“I am excited to see ARPA-E get off the ground. Our country desperately needs big breakthroughs - not just incremental change - in energy technologies if we are going to meet our growing need for affordable energy, lower our carbon emissions, and grow new sectors of the economy. ARPA-E is bringing together the best and the brightest from across the nation to work on solving these challenges. These partnerships help speed the pace of innovation and ensure that these new technologies get to the market quickly and do not wither in the ‘valley of death’ between basic research and commercialization.

“Although, in some respects, it feels like this has been a long time in coming, since the law has been on the books for over two years, I’ve been pleased with the speed that DOE has managed to get the agency up and running, get the first Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) out the door, review the huge number of responses, and make the awards decisions, all since the first funding came through late last winter. The first FOA received over 3,700 white papers, which far exceeded anyone’s expectations. I take that as a testament to a pent-up hunger for these types of opportunities to do transformational energy technology development. I look forward to more fully reviewing what types of research they’re funding, to seeing how they apply any lessons learned in the first round to upcoming awards application processes, and to working with the newly-confirmed director.”

"I'm encouraged by the president's decision to put Dr. Majumdar at the helm. By all accounts he has what it takes to put ARPA-E on a course to accomplish great things."

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
rjones@aip.org
301-209-3095