ARPA-E clean-energy awards: MIT leads again

Nancy W. Stauffer MITEI

Once again the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has recognized MIT as an engine of energy innovation. On April 29, it awarded $11 million in grants to MIT-led research projects focusing on bacterial production of motor fuels, a novel carbon capture technology, a new “semi-solid flow battery,” and teams of microbes that work together to produce biodiesel. According to DOE, those “ambitious research projects could fundamentally change the way the country uses and produces energy.”

The new grants are part of the second round of awards from DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E)—funding that is intended to accelerate innovation in clean-energy technologies, increase America’s competitiveness, and create jobs.

This time, ARPA-E awarded a total of $106 million to 37 energy research projects in 17 states. MIT was leader on four and named a collaborator on one more. An additional three were awarded to other organizations in Massachusetts.

Short descriptions of the four MIT projects with their lead researchers follow. The projects span the three areas of funding defined in the ARPA-E call for proposals: electrofuels—biofuels from electricity; batteries for electrical energy storage in transportation; and innovative materials and processes for advanced carbon capture technologies. The first two proposals were submitted through the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI).

In addition, MIT is named as a collaborator on a project to develop an inexpensive, rechargeable magnesium-ion battery for electric and hybrid-electric vehicle applications. The project was awarded $3.2 million and is led by Pellion Technologies Inc., an MIT spin-off company, with collaboration from Bar-Ilan University as well as MIT.

“The new ARPA-E awards further invigorate MIT’s pursuit of the best breakthrough ideas in energy, accelerating advances from the beginning of the innovation pipeline to the end,” said Ernest Moniz, director of MITEI and the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems. “The technologies chosen for support hold great potential for reducing carbon emissions in both the transportation and the power sectors.”

Three awards—all in the area of electrofuels—went to other organizations in Massachusetts, joining the region’s growing energy technology innovation cluster. The University of Massachusetts Amherst, with the University of California San Diego and Genomatica, received $1 million for “Electrofuels via direct electron transfer from electrodes to microbes”; Ginkgo BioWorks, with the University of California Berkeley and the University of Washington, received $4 million for “Engineering E. coli as an electrofuels chassis for isooctane production”; and Harvard Medical School—Wyss Institute received $4 million for “Engineering a bacterial reverse fuel cell.”

“In the first round of ARPA-E awards last October, Massachusetts companies received a larger share of funding—22 percent—than any other state, and, once again with this round, the Commonwealth is showing its colors as a clear leader in clean technology innovation,” Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian Bowles said. “I congratulate MIT and the other Massachusetts ARPA-E winners—all of which are partners in our pursuit of a clean energy future.”

In the first round, selected projects included one MIT research lab and five Massachusetts-based companies, four of them MIT spinoffs and one with strong links to MIT.

The new awards were made through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a multi-billion-dollar investment intended to stimulate economic growth through innovation, science, and technology. Of that money, $400 million was designated for ARPA-E and will support three rounds of awards.

This article appears in the issue of Energy Futures.

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