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USA: Energy grants boost research, from new fuels to batteries

Tobacco as a source of fuel? Batteries to power a car for 500 miles on a single charge? A wave disk engine — the size of a cooking pot — that boosts a vehicle’s fuel efficiency?

These ideas are a few of the dozens being funded by the Obama administration as part of a little-known program that encourages “high risk, high value” energy innovation that swings for the fences.

They were spotlighted in a recent, gee-whiz showcase, complete with high-powered lasers and microscopic transmitters, hosted near Washington, D.C., by the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy). The program is modeled after the Defense Department’s larger, decades-old DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), which says it invented the Internet.

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Yet the third annual Energy Innovation Summit came amid debate about the federal government’s role in funding clean technology. Critics, including many Republicans, cite the DOE’s half-billion-dollar loan guarantee to bankrupt solar manufacturer Solyndra and its $10 million L Prize last August to Philips Lighting for developing an “affordable,” efficient, made-in-America LED light bulb — that costs $50.

“The government does not have a good track record of funding research for commercial development,” says David Kreutzer, an energy economist at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. He says it should fund only basic research and leave more commercial ideas to venture capitalists. If something is promising enough, such as advanced batteries, he says, the marketplace will take it.

Not necessarily so, ARPA-E’s supporters say. Energy Secretary Steven Chu says the program, established by a bipartisan 2007 law, gives small, two- to three-year grants so researchers can get over the development hump and attract private funding.
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