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Federal Agency Funds New Energy Technologies


The Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, has incubated many important technologies over the decades in computer networking and other areas. The Energy Department wants to make similar strides with an agency called ARPA-E. Over three years now in operation, ARPA-E has spent nearly $800 million on 285 experimental projects.

We invited the agency's deputy director, Cheryl Martin, into our studio so we can find out more about these projects. Good morning.

CHERYL MARTIN: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Let's clarify, because I think some people hear the words clean energy and government investment put together and they think Solyndra, the failed solar panel company that ate up hundreds of millions in Energy Department loans. Is ARPA-E the agency that funded Solyndra?

MARTIN: ARPA-E is a part of the Department of Energy, but an entirely separate part, with a sole mission to focus on the development employment of early-stage technologies. We fund in $2 to$3 million increments, generally, small companies, academics doing these transformational energy projects.

MONTAGNE: So you're never effectively going to turn into a Solyndra situation, because you're never going to have that kind of money to throw at any one thing.

MARTIN: Exactly. And so we are actually looking to measure success in terms of handing it off to somebody else. We're going to catalyze an investment and then somebody else will pick it up and move it forward. So we are very much focused on really out there kind of technologies.

I mean let me give you an example of the type of things that we would fund. When you think about fuels, ARPA-E took the whole idea of biofuels and kind of turned it on its ear and said OK, well, plants have been trying to be plants for millions of years. Suppose you thought about this differently and said, could a plant be designed to be something that was more fuel-like? So could you take loblolly pines, which grow all over the southeast of the United States - and they actually make a component today, it's called a terpene. It's a molecule that is very close to the type of molecules that are in fuel. And so you could envision that the crop from these trees would be of a type of fuel.

MONTAGNE: And so you try to grow a lot more of them?

MARTIN: What this is actually saying that the tree itself, so you think about when you have, you know, maple syrup - you tap the tree and you get the syrup out to make syrup - this would be actually a fuel component that you could extract from the tree to be the fuel itself.

Another example, is the idea that algae produce really nice oils, and people like to think about them for fuels. We've looked at taking those traits and having them in tobacco plants. So could you have the good properties of algae in a tobacco plant, which we know how to grow on poor soil?

MONTAGNE: So ARPA-E is like DARPA in that its purpose is sort of big think.

MARTIN: What we think about picking projects, it's not does it work? We asked if it works, will it matter. So we actually really take risks, saying if it works it's going to really change the game.

MONTAGNE: You know, I wonder if there is less impetus, now, for what you're doing now that the U.S. is producing so much more oil and gas.

MARTIN: We look at it as creating more opportunities. So we actually just ran a project called MOVE(ph), which is trying to envision natural gas as a fuel for passenger vehicles, could you develop new tank designs for the car as well as compressor designs that would work at home.

MONTAGNE: So I mean, you're talking about cars that can be fueled at home, effectively.

MARTIN: Exactly.

MONTAGNE: Do you have a sense of the percentage of projects that just don't pan out?

MARTIN: Well, because we're only three years old, we don't have enough data yet to say definitively we expect a certain percentage absolutely to not pan out. But we certainly, because of our charter, can stop projects where the technology is not going where we want it to. And so already we've stopped on the order of 10 projects. And then certain projects certainly will be picked up and carried forward, others will provide knowledge about what is or is not working to fund our thinking for future ideas.

MONTAGNE: But that's part, in a way, of the idea. If these were sure things the government would need to fund them.

MARTIN: It wouldn't be our job to do them if we already knew the outcome. But I think it's wonderful that we can stop things that don't work, further fund things that do work, and then look to hand off to somebody else who is going to be interested in carrying it all the way to the market.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

MARTIN: Thanks for having me.

MONTAGNE: Cheryl Martin is deputy director of ARPA-E. That's the Energy Department's Advanced Research Project Agency. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.