A three-day ARPA-E Summit concluded in Washington, D.C. on March 2, 2011. It was held in the midst of unprecedented instability in Middle-East, crude oil price returning to triple digit, imminent federal spending cut, and ambitious clean energy investment announced by China. Nonetheless, the ARPA-E Summit showcased that the United States is still leading in the world effort on clean energy, and reinforced a message to me and the many other attendees that, with focused cooperation between the public and private sectors, the United States is on verge of making breakthroughs towards energy security and economic opportunities.
During the summit, a few technological areas were identified as particularly promising. The first is electrofuels, where bacteria is used to convert chemical or electrical energy and CO2 into high quality liquid fuels. One group of researchers claims that, using electricity harnessed from solar panels, their genetically engineered bacteria are capable of producing liquid fuels three times more efficient than the photosynthetic-biomass route. More than one group projects that electrofuels can be produced at $3 per gallon or less in a few years.
Another promising area isnatural gas. The price of natural gas is only one-quarter of the current price of crude oil ($100 per gallon). The United States owns the world’s third largest reserve of natural gas, which has been projected to gradually substitute coal in energy production. And there are already technologies available to convert natural gas into liquid oil. On the other hand, certain technological developments are still necessary for natural gas to be more widely adopted in the United States, especially in minimizing adverse environment impact both in the production of natural gas and in the conversion to liquid oil or ethylene.
There is also promising development in ARPA-E’s BEEST project (Batteries for Electrical Energy Storage in Transportation). This is an area heavily impacted by advancements in nanomaterials and nanotechnology, in which several groups are racing towards producing high-performance, lost-cost batteries that would make gas tank obsolete.
Finally, while this and other industry forums are successful in supporting cleantech development, a looming question remains – will the manufacturing and economic benefit of the matured technologies stay in the United States?. Lack of debt-financing, uncompetitive corporate tax rate, and decreasing work-force quality have been cited as top concerns for the private investors