Four Intriguing Inventions from the ARPA-E Innovation Summit

The ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit took place last week just outside Washington, D.C., and the show floor was filled with projects that promise to advance the United States as a force in clean energy. Most of the exhibiting companies were very young and in possession of early-stage technologies that are difficult to explain. But a few offered a clear glimpse of the future.

A little background: ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy) is a new federal agency created by the Obama administration and originally funded with money from the 2009 stimulus package. It is the Energy Department’s answer to DARPA, the military’s extraordinarily successful research program that formed the basis for the stealth fighter, GPS and the Internet. ARPA-E is funding environmentally-friendly solutions like smart buildings, carbon capture from coal plants, electrofuels and improved solar and wind power.

1. Printable LED Lights: Nth Degree Technologies

At the summit, Nth Degree Technologies made the debut of what it calls Printed Illuminated Paper. The company embeds paper with thousands of tiny LEDs, each the size of a white blood cell, to make sheets of light that can be cut to any shape or size.

The company had two kinds of demos on hand: One was two light bulbs, or rather pieces of illuminated paper cut into the shape of light bulbs. (See the video.) However, Mark Lowenthal, the company’s vice president, told me that these were just attention-grabbers and that the final product will be based on a different technology and will bear more resemblance to the piece of paper in the photograph to the right. This light was far brighter and used 8 watts of electricity. The next generation of illuminated paper, Lowenthal said, will consume a quarter the wattage and be 50 to 100 times brighter.

2. Trapping the Ocean’s Power: Atmocean, Inc.

The idea behind the Atmocean WEST (Wave Energy Seawater Transmission) is to deploy an array of oceanborne devices that capture wave energy and store it for later use, all while creating better fishing grounds. How is such a trifecta possible?

WEST creates its power from a sort of tug-of-war. A series of buoys (the yellow items in the graphic) float on the surface. Underwater, each buoy has a tail equipped with a series of toggles that creates a huge amount of drag. Between the buoy and the tail is a pump that is activated with each passing swell. That pump sends seawater through a hose to a central floating platform, where it operates an air compressor. That compressor, in turn, routes through a hose to the ocean floor, where the air is stored in bladders.

Those bladders are the invention of an ARPA-E awardee, Bright Energy Storage Technologies. (Atmocean isn’t an awardee, by the way, but was one of several companies whose presence on the show floor was a tacit endorsement by ARPA-E.) Bright Source has realized that air, trapped in the pressurized environment of deep water, is an efficient way to store energy. A pneumatic tube connects the bladder to shore, where the air expands in volume and can be released to spin a turbine whenever the energy is needed.

Now about that fishing thing: Atmocean’s CEO, Philip Kithil, told me that his initial tests have shown that the toggle-and-buoy system creates an upwelling of cold water, which if it were borne out would make the area around the buoys into a nutrient-rich ground for fish.

3. Refrigeration Anywhere: Xergy Inc.

Xergy uses the principles of a fuel cell to create cooling in a much smaller space than a traditional air conditioner, while consuming a fraction of the power and without using refrigeration fluids that are harmful to the atmosphere. “We are using hydrogen as a working fluid and pumping it across a membrane using electricity,” says Bahmad Bahar, the company’s president and an Iranian engineer who grew up in the family’s refrigeration business.

The company was a finalist in ARPA-E’s BEETIT (Building Energy Efficiency Through Innovative Thermodevices) category and is a finalist in GE’s Ecoimagination contest.

With no moving parts and a simple design, Bahar thinks Xergy’s air conditioners could be scaled to cool an environment of almost any size, from a computer’s CPU to a full-size building. And since it takes up less space, a unit could be inserted where air conditioners have never gone before, like the wall of a building or the door panel of a car.

4. Storing Sun and Wind Energy: General Compression

One of the biggest problems with renewable energies like wind and solar is that the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. General Compression is one of several companies funded by ARPA-E that is figuring out how to take these intermittent sources and make them into something that can provide “baseload power” that is available 24/7.

When the wind blows or the sun shines, a renewable-energy plant often produces more electricity than the grid can presently use. General Compression takes that extra power and uses it to make compressed air, which is stored in a salt cavern underground. Then, when night falls or the wind dies, the air can be released to spin turbines and create electricity.

There’s just one problem. When that stored air is released, or un-compressed, it becomes so cold that it’s difficult to handle. Other companies contend with this problem by burning some fossil fuels to heat the air. General Compression’s answer is to trim the cold temperatures (and also the heat from the initial compression) by venting it to a pool of water on the surface.

Article by David Ferris, appearing courtesy the Matter Network.

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