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Awesome energy innovations, courtesy of Uncle Sam

WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) — Someplace in America, some very smart scientists are busy revolutionizing our economy.

At least, that’s what a small federal agency — ARPA-E (the Advanced Energy Projects Agency-Energy) — hopes to accomplish by giving a few million dollars to each of hundreds of promising technologies that could change the way the world produces and consumes energy.

Some of these researchers are rushing to invent, perfect and commercialize the technologies that could one day replace petroleum and other fossil-fuels as the world’s dominant energy source.

The hope is that these new technologies could allow us to dramatically cut the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases without hurting economic growth. Indeed, energy costs could be much lower and less volatile. The right mix of technologies could make any country or region entirely energy self-sufficient.

A team from the University of Florida is working on bioengineering pine trees to produce more turpentine. Ultimately, these trees could be tapped like sugar maples to provide biofuels.

While these researchers are reinventing energy technology, ARPA-E is reinventing the way the government funds research and development.

Rather than give billions of dollars to one laboratory or one company to develop one technology, as most government programs do, ARPA-E is giving small amounts to hundreds of labs to investigate promising transformative energy technologies.

ARPA-E doesn’t fund basic research that may or may not have any practical applications; it requires its grantees to think like entrepreneurs, to think about how to commercialize their idea.

ARPA-E is almost like a venture capital firm, nurturing many ideas in the hope that one of them will be The Next Big Thing. But ARPA-E isn’t a VC firm; it doesn’t provide all the financing needed to bring a product to market, only the seed money to prove the technology enough to attract private venture capital.

The ARPA-E incubator is already showing some successes: So far, 17 of its projects have attracted follow-up funding from the private sector totaling $450 million. Twelve other projects have started new companies, and 10 more are receiving additional funds from other government agencies.
Electric avenues

So far, the biggest success stories have come from projects working on building better batteries and on bioengineering projects to invent plants and microorganisms that can directly produce usable liquid fuels.


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