Arun Majumdar, head of the DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, talks to Discovery News.
The DOE is funding research in green energy to jumpstart innovation.
Green oil, a new kind of long-life electric car battery and more efficient solar are among the goals.
Arun Majumdar heads the Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (or ARPAe), which funds high-risk, high-reward future energy technologies that aren't ready for the market yet. He's a former engineering professor at U.C. Berkeley and associate director at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. Last month, ARPAe granted more than $156 million to 60 projects from alternatives to rare earth metals, to a turpentine-based fuel from pine trees to a high-voltage electrical transformer the size of a car battery. Discovery News' Eric Niiler spoke with Majundar recently in his Washington, D.C. office about where energy research is headed.
Eric Niiler: Tell me about green oil.
Arun Majumdar: If you have to make money in the oil business, the cheapest is to go for the next barrel of oil. The reason that the cost (of biofuels) is high, and it is less than 1 percent efficient to convert the energy from sunlight to oil (is that) you need a lot of land, a lot of fertilizer and a lot of water, (plus) the logistics of collecting biomass to convert that. That's the real problem. You need R and D to reduce the cost. That's what's going on today.
But this is going to take longer than the end of this decade to make it cost competitive with petroleum. We should be under no illusion of this. Biofuels will take some time and we should be patient about this.
But there are some things that are totally different; this is something called electro-fuels. It takes the waste product of oil, which is called sour crude. The sourness is the hydrogen sulfides. They throw it away. We say there is energy stored in there. We take energy from the electrons in there and feed it to chemo-synthetic bugs and they produce oil.
This is 10 times more efficient than plant-based photosynthesis, and it can work at night. People thought this was impossible to do. We are funding 15 teams and we're producing biofuel without sunlight. This is an entirely new route to make oil. They're taking shots that nobody else in the world has tried. If this works, it's an entirely new industry that does not exist today.
E.N.: Renewable energies are still too expensive compared to fossil fuels. When will that change?
A.M.: Different technologies have different time scales. For example, with onshore wind energy, the cost of energy production is pretty close to parity. In some parts of the country it is cost competitive today (with fossil fuels), in other parts it is not. That's why you see wind being deployed. Solar is not. Utility scale solar is about three to four times higher than lowest cost of electricity, which is from a natural gas combined cycle, about five cents per kilowatt hour. Solar at the utility scale is 15 to 20 cents per kilowatt hour.
At the residential scale, it's about 25 to 30 cents per kilowatt hour. So sometimes you need very novel financing schemes to (be competitive). What we have done in DOE is to create the Sunshot initiative. You remember President Kennedy's Moonshot, where he said let's to go to the moon and return within a decade? The Sunshot initiative says lets reduce the cost of solar to 5 cents per kilowatt hour within the decade. Why? First of all, it will scale without subsidies.
E. N.: How do you do that?
A.M.: The role of the technologist or scientist and the engineer is harder now because you want to reduce the cost much lower than what you would with a subsidy. But that's the harder job that we are willing to take.
Where does the cost come from? One is from the photovoltaic module itself. That cost is coming down. Then the cost of the power systems required to go from one voltage to another, the converters. We are investing heavily in power electronics to reduce the cost even further. Today it's 30 to 40 cents a watt, we want to reduce it to 10 cents a watt.
The third cost is balance of system, which is all the installation, all the permitting, all the safety requirements. It's not sufficient to do only technology, we have to do the other parts as well. In San Jose, for example, it takes two days to get a permit to put solar on top of your roof. In some parts of the country it takes nine months. I think there's room for improvement there. We want different counties to compete and be the fastest and the smoothest and that's going on right now.
In the mid 1990s, we had about 45 percent of the manufacturing volume of the in the world. Do you know much we have today? It's 7 percent. It's a warning sign of a Sputnik moment for us. We need to change it. We have to be competitive without subsidies. If you can integrate high-efficiency photovoltaics in your roof tiles, you don't need separate panels -- and that's happening right now.
But our biggest national security issue is on the transportation side. We are importing 50 percent of the oil we use from other nations. We are spending a billion dollars a day. If you could spend that money we would have much less financial problems than we do today. In the stationary sector, we have wind, solar, coal, natural gas. In transportation, we only have one fuel, oil. If there's any disruption of that, our nation is vulnerable. There are other ways of making oil.
E.N.: One of the big bottlenecks is holding onto the energy from wind and solar. If you have a coal plant you can turn it up or down. Is there a really cool way to store this renewable energy, whether it's some kind of cell or something?
A.M.: The cheapest way is pumped hydro. But you can only do it in certain parts of the country. We're not going to build dams all around the United States. There's an innovation that is coming out of MIT that is mind-boggling. They've created a liquid metal battery. Two liquids, when mixed together, when you pass an electrical current, the two metals separate out and plate out.
This process has come about by taking the manufacturing process for aluminum and turning it around for a battery. This is presumably scalable, a completely new idea for batteries for grid- level storage. They showed this in a lab in a pizza-box size. Now they've started a company and got the IP rights from MIT. Now Bill Gates has invested with them and a French company called Total.
E.N.: You would attach this to a solar panel?
A.M.: Yes, somewhere on the grid and use it when you want to. Storage is important for transportation as well. You look at the Chevy Volt; it cost $45,000 and the biggest cost is the battery. We in the United States have taken risks and then the costs have come down.
E.N.: Are there other things that are really way out there?
A.M.: There's is the BEEST program (Batteries for Electrical Energy Storage in Transportation). You want to make the electric car have a longer range than a gasoline-based cars, because then you can sell it without subsidies. That's the battery that you really need.
So the idea is let's say you want to drive from St. Louis to Chicago -- 300 miles -- on a single charge. That car does not exist today because the battery does not exist. We put up a challenge to the scientific and engineering community. That battery has to have double the energy density of today's lithium-ion battery at one-third the cost. And guess what: You give scientists and engineers and innovators a goal like this, a risky idea, and some money, they will go for it.
There's a whole portfolio of new batteries coming out. I'm not sure which one is going to succeed: an all electron battery being tried out at Stanford; a lithium flow battery, with completely new architecture, from MIT; a whole new class of metal air batteries. If one of them is successful, it will make the lithium ion battery obsolete. Just like the lithium ion battery made the nickel metal hydride battery obsolete.
This is the next wave that is coming. It's too risky for the private sector to develop. That's where the government comes in. It's equivalent of the Stealth technology or Internet technology that DARPA invested in.
E.N.: What are the biggest obstacles?
A.M.: We fund things that are pre-venture. The venture capitalists find it too risky. If they show their first prototype, we are hoping it will be picked up by the private sector. I think today in the United States, access to low-cost, long-term capital for creating manufacturing is an issue.
Innovative technologies are risky, that means the cost of capital may go up. That's one of the knobs we need to turn to keep manufacturing here. The second is markets. For example, the CAFÉ (Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency -- 54.5 mpg by 2025) standards will create the demand for all these batteries. We just need to line up several vectors: the science and technology, finance and markets, policy and education, if they are all aligned and pulling in the same direction, the United States is unbeatable.