Basic and early research is critical for developing the breakthrough technologies of the future, and this research is essential for solving our long-term energy challenges. However, many speculative energy projects are simply too risky for investors, so the U.S. created a new type of research organization in 2007 to explore the vast potential of these future technologies. The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) receives an annual budget of $250 million and has invested over $770 million into 275 projects over the last five years.
In a NPR interview last week, host Ira Flatow discussed several future energy technologies with ARPA-E deputy director Cheryl Martin. During the interview, Martin discussed projects including lithium air batteries and magnetic flywheels.
While lithium air batteries are not a new technology, ARPA-E proposes solutions to several of the challenges lithium faces. Lithium is cheap, abundant, and has a high energy density, but as the battery works, parts begin to dissolve. By replacing these dissolving liquid electrolytes with new solid electrolytes, ARPA-E intends to create stronger and more resilient lithium batteries.
Most modern electric vehicles (EVs) run on Lithium-ion batteries. In order to compete with gasoline, the best lithium-ion battery would need to store two times more energy at 30% of the cost. These new lithium-air batteries will store up to three times more energy than lithium-ion batteries and will allow EVs to travel up to 350 miles on a single charge.
Secondly, Martin discussed improvements to flywheel technologies. Our current electrical grid cannot store excess energy adequately, so plants over-generate in order to ensure a reliable supply. Flywheels offer a method of storing energy for future grid-use at any location, thus cutting the need for energy over-production.
By changing to composite materials and creating thinner, more resilient wheels, ARPA-E and Boeing intend to revolutionize flywheel design by levitating and spinning the flywheels with strong magnets. Such a design would allow the flywheels to deliver 400% more energy than standard flywheels, and it would increase the availability and reliability of wind and solar power.
Later in the NPR interview, Harvard Professor Jennifer Lewis discussed her micro-battery project sponsored by the Department of Energy. Lewis’ group plans to push the limits of 3-D printing with these tiny batteries that are 1,000 times smaller than any commercial rechargeable lithium-ion battery. These batteries will be able to store energy in autonomous sensor arrays for solar panels and other environmental sensor platforms.
All of these projects demonstrate a growing interest in battery technologies for renewable energy resources. Even though most renewable energy forms are far from achieving cost-competitiveness with fossil fuels, government involvement through funding and research will allow forward-thinking scientists to overcome our current obstacles.