Intelligent Energy

U.S. invests $156M into 'groundbreaking' clean energy projects

U.S. invests $156M into 'groundbreaking' clean energy projects

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Tobacco leaves filled with fuel is just one of the 60 'groundbreaking' research projects that received ARPA-E grant money from the Energy Department.

The U.S. Energy Department might be scrambling to finalize the remaining conditional loan guarantees before Friday's deadline, but it still found time to award $156 million to 60 potentially 'groundbreaking' energy research projects.

Unlike the loan guarantee program -- which is essentially debt backed by the government -- this is a direct injection of cash. The grant money was awarded to research projects focused on breakthroughs in biofuels, thermal storage, grid controls and solar power electronics. Projects that are trying to increase U.S. competitiveness in rare earth alternatives received nearly $32 million.

The funds come from the DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, a program modeled after the Department of Defense's DARPA that gives grants to high-risk early stage companies working on breakthrough technology.

The DOE has a complete list of every research project that received funds in this latest round. Here are a few that stood out.

Tobacco leaves filled with fuel

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory received $4.8 million to develop tobacco plants with leaves that contain fuel molecules. The research team will engineer tobacco with traits of hydrocarbon biosynthesis, enhanced carbon uptake and use light more optimally.

The tobacco will be grown using advanced cultivation methods to maximize biomass production.

An EV that doesn't use rare earth metals

QM Power and partners Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Smith Electric Vehicles and the University of Delaware received $2.32 million to develop a new type of electric motor for advanced electric vehicles.

EVs typically require rare earth magnets, 95 percent of which are imported from China, to efficiently provide torque to the wheels. The QM Power team plan to develop a motor that doesn't use rare earth metals and is light, compact and potentially delivers more power with greater efficiency and at less cost than other motors.

A transportable solar storage device

MIT received $2.96 million for it "HybriSol," a thermal energy storage device or heat battery that can capture and store energy from the sun and release onto the grid at a later time. The device is transportable like fuels, 100 percent renewable, rechargeable and emissions-free.

The device can be used without a grid for applications including heating and water purification.

Device to convert solar power more efficiently

Google-backed start-up Transphorm and partner Enphase Energy received $3.6 million to develop a cost effective, high efficiency solar inverter that uses a single semiconductor device material gallium nitride -- and not silicon the more commonly used material in inverters. The device will be integrated into solar panels.

The technology will allow a reliable power transfer from solar panels to the grid.

Photo: Charles Watkins/DOE

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Kirsten Korosec

Contributing Editor

Kirsten Korosec has written for Technology Review, Marketing News, The Hill, BNET and Bloomberg News. She holds a degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure