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The U.S. places long bets on energy innovation

Scott Tong Mar 31, 2011

The U.S. places long bets on energy innovation

Scott Tong Mar 31, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: The Obama administration these days is all about “winning the future.” That’s the tagline behind pretty much every domestic policy proposal they come up with: how to keep America competitive.

One key area, as the president talked about in his speech yesterday, is energy. To help get us to clean-power breakthroughs, the administration wants to spend money developing next-generation technologies. But that’s turning into a very this-generation problem: the federal budget.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Scott Tong reports.

Scott Tong: When members of the administration talk innovation, they start speaking Russian. As in “Sputnik,” 1957.

Newsreel: Today a new moon is in the sky, a 23-inch metal sphere, placed in orbit by a Russian rocket.

Eisenhower’s Washington responded by throwing money and bodies at science and tech. It created the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency.

Arun Majumdar: DARPA was created in response to the launch of Sputnik.

Assistant Energy Secretary Arun Majumdar. He says Darpa made breakthroughs, like stealth technology and the early Internet, long before we were typing “OMG, send.”

Majumdar: The first network computer started in 1968. It really sort of scaled over the ’80s, when you launched the Internet. It takes that kind of time to scale.

Majumdar runs a new agency that’s a cousin of DARPA. ARPA-E is the Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy. And in energy, the space race of today is batteries.

At stake is the emerging electric vehicle market, by some projections a $100 billion industry in two decades. Today, plug-ins drive just 50 miles, maybe 70, per charge. The electric holy grail is a battery with 10 times that range.

Majumdar: Everyone is trying to create that battery. No one has it in the world.

The U.S. lags the battery market, but aspires for a space-race kind of boost. Enter battery firm PolyPlus, in Berkeley, Calif., backed by ARPA-E money.

PhD chemist and founder Steven Visco tinkers with those crazy potions from 10th grade lab. Remember lithium in water?

Steven Visco: It’s a lot of excitement. It fizzes up, and you get a little hydrogen cloud. And then there’s typically a spark and that ignites the hydrogen and you get a little bit of a Hindenburg there.

If you could lose the Hindenburg part, lithium and water make for an ultralight, marathon battery. Visco says he’s done it.

Visco: We make something almost looks like an ice cream sandwich, where you have two of these rather remarkable ceramic membranes surrounding it.

To prove it, he dunks his lithium gizmo in the company fish tank. And… plop, plop, no fizz. Just a light bulb on the gadget flickering on, indicating electricity. For his next trick, Visco hopes to take his invention to market, with the help of $5 million from ARPA-E.

So, why does a company like this need public money? Proponents say private investment tends to diss these shoot-the-moon ventures. They take too long — the PolyPlus battery could take a decade to hit the vehicle market — and yes, time is money.

Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tom Baruch.

Tom Baruch: For the kinds of programs we back, generally 5 years is about it. And many venture capitalists are shying away from investing in energy because of the time and the capital requirements.

That’s the void ARPA-E tries to fill. And to keep up with Asian competitors and their state funding. And yet, this is the government with a track record.

Josh Lerner at Harvard Business School recalls synthetic fuels — a Carter-era program that dumped $20 billion into a failed program to turn coal into natural gas.

Josh Lerner: The highway of government programs here is littered with carcasses of programs that were ill-conceived or ill-implemented, where large amounts of money have gone to firms but very little innovation has come out of it.

So, will ARPA-E be the next boondoggle? Or the next DARPA, and seed tomorrow’s generation of Boeings and Googles? We’ll only know if the program gets funded long-term — and proponents want $1 billion a year from Congress. That is a risky venture.

In Berkeley, Calif., I’m Scott Tong for Marketplace.

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