Driving the U.S. Forward as a World Leader in Innovation

Arun Majumdar with author Sandra Kwak

By Sandra Kwak

Breakthrough technology and government funding have not always been synonymous, however the combination can lead to disruptive success when applied judiciously. At the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit in Washington D.C., Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu pointed to top areas in clean tech that the ARPA-E program is infusing R&D capital with the aim of catapulting the U.S. ahead as a world leader in innovation.

In a keynote speech, Chu cited a war department grant awarded to Samuel Langley in 1903 for $50,000 along with $20,000 from the Smithsonian for innovation in aviation. Langley retired after two failed attempts at flight and nine days later the Wright brothers made their first airborne voyage. Chu pointed out that despite the fact that flight was first made possible in the U.S., by WWII Americans were using allied planes manufactured overseas, due to decreases in government investment in aviation. While the government is not always good at choosing the right technology initially, federal support can ensure that inventions and applications developed in the U.S. create a market edge for the country.

Chu provided success stories from the DOE’s process of helping new discoveries speed to market. Umpqua Energy of Argonne National Labs and winner of the ARPA-E Innovation Challenge, decreases 85 percent of emissions in engines. Vorbec Materials uses grapheme to increase battery performance. The Oak Ridge Consortium (http://www.cfcomposites.org/) is developing low cost carbon composites for planes and Amyris is developing plant-based biofuels in conjunction with the DOE.

Arun Majumdar, ARPA-E Director, mentioned other ground-breaking startups in this year’s batch including 24M, an A123 spinoff company, that is combining lithium ion batteries with fuel cells. Cree has created a transistor that fits on a fingertip which can handle 1 megawatt of electricity, which has the potential to turn 800 pounds of transformers into the size of a suitcase. Sheetak boasts a refrigerator with no moving parts the size of a credit card with leapfrog potential for applications in developing countries. Stating “we need to make locally and sell globally,” Majumdar underscored the need to keep inventive talent inside U.S. borders with market, manufacturing and finance support.

ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy) is a program formed inside the DOE in 2007, and funded with $400 million by the American Reinvestment and  Recovery Act in 2009. It is modeled after the DOD’s tech development program, DARPA. The agency is seeking demonstrated research with IP that will lead to private sector funding. Their goal is to push competitive technology into the marketplace and let companies vie for leadership.

Heralding the need for a second industrial revolution for clean, affordable energy, Steven Chu stated “America is the most innovative company in the world. There is a huge market out there so let’s not blow it.”


Sandra Kwak is a guest writer for Triple Pundit. She is Co-Founder and President of energy efficiency company, Powerzoa.

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