Feds Ramp Up Funding For Riskier Renewable Fuel Projects

August 18, 2010
Corn Ethanol Pump

Corn Ethanol Pump

How will we be fueling our cars 20 or 30 years from now? Will we plug in, as some of us soon will with EVs such as the 2011 Nissan Leaf, but not have to worry about battery life? Or will we be gassing up, much like we do today, but with home-grown cellulosic ethanol that's far more sustainable than today's E85?

As part of a series of articles, the New York Times is examining how federal and private funds are being spend toward finding alternatives to petroleum.

The new Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E), has a budget of $400 million for two years and is spreading funds toward projects that are higher-risk but potentially higher-reward—the sorts of ventures that make even venture capitalists wary, as there might not be a return in a year, or even several years. Projects eligible would include building a radically more energy-dense battery, or efficiently producing liquid fuels from recycled matter.

The Times outlines several promising technologies:

- Nanotubes. One such project, the Times reports, involves 12-atom-thick nanotubes that could quickly store or discharge electricity. The systems could be built into very small, light, and powerful packages, but is still in the very early stages.

- Materials Genome. Another project aims to create a “materials genome” that would allow computers to predict the worth of certain materials for batteries, or fabricate new ones.

- Cellulosic ethanol. Some researchers have tries to develop special enzymes that would be able to break cellulose—from a range of sources, including wood, sorghum, or grasses—down into sugars that could be made into fuel. At least one startup is attempting to engineer plants that would internally make the enzyme and digest their cellulose.

For more details, check out the full NY Times piece, along with their entire series, Beyond Fossil Fuels.

[NY Times]

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