Tuesday, September 11, 2012


DOE's ARPA-E in The Atlantic.

I think ARPA-E is a great idea. Civilizations almost always under-invest in basic research. Applied research for which there is a near term possibility of economic payoff tends to be reasonably well supported by the market if institutions such as venture capital or corporate R&D are well-developed. However, increase the expected timescale for economic return by a few additional years and suddenly the amount of non-governmental funding available drops precipitously.
The early days at ARPA-E were pretty insane. Its first couple of employees had to put out its first solicitation, and it was inundated with 3700 applications for its first 37 grants, which crashed the federal computer system. But they attracted an absurdly high-powered team of brainiacs: a thermodynamics expert from Intel, an MIT electrical engineering professor, a clean-tech venture capitalist who also taught at MIT. The director, Arun Majumdar, had run Berkeley's nanotechnology institute. His deputy, Eric Toone, was a Duke biochemistry professor and entrepreneur. Arun liked to say that it was a band of brothers; I like to think of it as a $400 million Manhattan Project tucked inside the $800 billion stimulus.

... So far, more than a dozen ARPA-E-funded companies have already attracted follow-up venture funding. They're very excited about 1366 Technologies, which has developed a new solar manufacturing process. Basically, instead of slicing silicon ingots like salami, which is a difficult way to make wafers and wastes a lot of silicon dust, they're creating the wafers directly from liquid silicon like pancakes, which could cut the price of solar panels by a third. The other big winner so far is Envia Systems, which has developed the world's most powerful lithium-ion battery; it could slice $5000 off the cost of the second-generation Chevy Volt. But there are all kinds of exciting projects: lithium-air batteries that could put lithium-ion out to pasture someday, wind turbines shaped like jet engines, electric transformers the size of a suitcase instead of a kitchen, laser drilling technology that could cut costs of geothermal wells as well as petroleum wells. We'll see what pans out.


David Coughlin said...

I see the energy and bioengineering research solicitations and I think, "That would be interesting," Not giggly-fun interesting, but have a meaningful impact on our lives interesting. I just don't know how, as a grownup with a mortgage, to reinvent myself and my qualifications to start doing some of this research. I tried to build a relationship with the BD office at UltraMegaBigDefense this spring and I got this line, "We spend a year socializing a problem with the customer, then some months actually shaping the RFP. We don't bid on anything unless we have it wired." I'm dying to get my hands on some proposal work.

anna Sonata said...

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LondonYoung said...

you use the word Civilizations here ... do you mean all of humankind in a particular era, or do you mean individual nations? Note that longer term investment is hard to protect, and may countries don't even recognize the concept of intellectual property. So, that $5000 off the cost of a chevy volt, paid for by US citizens, could turn out to be only 1000 euros off the cost of an Indian voltara as purchased by italians ...

steve hsu said...

Investment in near-term R&D is often well-supported through the profit motive. However, work that is not likely to pay off for a decade or two is much harder to get funded, because it's hard to predict who will reap the eventual payoff. Thus, long term R&D depends on more abstract principles for its support (e.g., the future good of the nation or humanity). I would guess that almost all societies allocate too few resources to basic research and even to applied research whose payoff is 10-20 years in the future.

David Coughlin said...


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