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ARPA-E Expands Pursuit of Transportation Decarbonization

Today, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) announced funding opportunities for two new programs, each with $20 million, aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks. The first, Reducing Emissions Using Methanotrophic Organisms for Transportation Energy (REMOTE), is focused on developing improved biological technologies to convert natural gas to liquids for transportation fuels, while the second, Modern Electro/Thermochemical Advancements for Light-Metal Systems (METALS), is geared towards improving the manufacturing and recycling of light metals for use in vehicles. (No one can fault the agency’s efforts to create clever acronyms). The move signals emerging government recognition of the importance of transportation decarbonization and the need for a range of innovative transportation technologies to facilitate that endeavor.

Cutting transportation sector emissions is critical to mitigating climate change. The ITIF report Shifting Gears notes that more than 20 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to cars and light trucks. Furthermore, the report observes, the number of those vehicles on the road globally is estimated to grow more than 47 percent from 750 million in 2010 to 1.1 billion in 2039.

Fittingly, the federal government launched several initiatives as of late to tackle that challenge. In November 2012, for example, the Energy Department announced the creation of a new Batteries and Energy Storage Hub at Argonne National Laboratory. On the eve of this year’s Energy Innovation Summit, ARPA-E announced funding for a new program focused on improving electric vehicle (EV) battery technologies – Robust Affordable Next Generation Energy Storage Systems, or RANGE – as well as an open funding opportunity which notably distributed three grants for projects specifically geared towards reducing EV charging times. And just last week, President Obama proposed the creation of an Energy Security Trust Fund that would provide $2 billion over ten years for research on cleaner transportation alternatives such as advanced biofuels and advanced batteries for electric vehicles, derived from royalty revenues from federal oil and gas development.

But while recent federal initiatives have focused on improving EVs – as has the media, as evidenced by the Tesla-Broder spat – decarbonization of the global transportation sector cannot depend on the promise of better EV batteries alone. ARPA-E should thus be commended for pursuing innovation in a variety of transportation technologies and not putting all of its eggs in one basket, so to speak. In fact, the new REMOTE and METALS programs join an array of transportation-oriented ARPA-E programs that includes not only RANGE, but also, among others, Plants Engineered to Replace Oil (PETRO), Methane Opportunities for Vehicular Energy (MOVE), and Microorganisms for Liquid Transportation Fuel (Electrofuels – perhaps the only instance of the agency dropping the ball on acronyms).

ARPA-E Deputy Director Dr. Cheryl Martin described the agency’s philosophy in a recent interview with ITIF: “We ask, is our research going to be transformational? And that’s our focus. If it works, let’s demonstrate that first. And if it works, is it going to matter?” When it comes to transportation decarbonization, the answer is a resounding yes.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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