30 Scientific American, May 2011 ScientificAmerican.com/may2011Comment at
ScientiSt in the Field
lets Go for itThe leader of the governments push into alternative energy talks about fuel-making microbes, the next industrial revolution and how soon his high-risk projects will reach the market
What is ARPAes mandate?The wise thought leaders who created ARPA-e felt that a place to go and try out a new, high-risk idea did not exist. [That is] what ARPA-e was created for.
We are saying that if energy is the next industrial revolution and if we are going to be competi-tive in this globally competitive world, and we are falling behind right now, gosh, lets go for it. You need ARPA-e to look for short-term translation of science into technology.
What kinds of projects is ARPA-e funding? Scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are making progress on electro fuels [using microbes to turn carbon dioxide back into liquid fuels similar to gasoline]. They have got a new catalyst that is cheaper, and they are taking that catalyst and attaching it to a microbe, and thats supposed to produce the hydrogen that the bug will consume to produce electrofuels. I dont think they have any idea whether the catalyst will actually work when at-tached to the bug, but youve got to just try it out. Now thats risky. But there are slightly less risky projects as well.
This high-risk research also includes developing better batteries for electric cars, cheaper photovoltaics and power electronics (superefficient electrical converters). When will these projects start to deliver?My most optimistic estimate is 10 years for when these products will actually be in the hands of consumers or placed in the energy infrastructure. But frankly, look at how long the Internet took, from 1968, and ARPAnet to the late 1980s.
Thats 20 years. Thats the sort of time scale we should be looking at.
Which programs can deliver fastest?Electrofuels are really in an early stage. I dont think we should expect that
any time soon. Maybe power electronics.
How do you decide when somethings a failure?Usually if a project does not meet its milestones [after an extension of] two or three months. We give them a little window instead of just cutting them off.
Still, our primary goal is to help re-searchers reach their milestones and move forward. We tell our folks, look, if somethings not working and we terminate a project, dont take it person-ally. Come back again, and we will try to support you. Interview by David Biello
name Arun Majumdartitle Director, Advanced Research Projects AgencyEnergylocation Washington, D.C.
And Houston, Discovery, for the
final time, wheels stopped.
Steven W. Lindsey of the U.S. Air Force guiding the shuttle Discovery
back from its final flight.
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May 2011, Scientifi cAmerican.com 31
The FDA approved biotech drug
Benlysta to treat lupus, the rst new
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A study in rats showed that poor nutrition during preg nancy caused a higher risk of disease for o spring in later life. An apple a day could keep the doctor away 50 years from now.
The last ight of shuttle Discovery
marked the begin-ning of the end of
the 30-year-old space bus
program. After Junes nal Atlantis
mission, the U.S. will have to depend
on Russia to get astronauts to the
International Space Station. Holy Sputnik.
Gamblers beware: sleep deprivation may increase a sense of optimism, causing people to take bigger risks. No wonder casinos hand out free cigarettes and hide the clocks.
Adonis-DNAed warlock Charlie
Sheen was labeled bipolar by experts
who have never met him.
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