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Grants to help change how we generate, consume energy

November 02, 2009

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has awarded Arizona State University two grants for alternative energy research that are part of a special DOE program to pursue high-risk, high-reward advances with the potential to change the way the nation generates and consumes energy.

ASU’s grants, totaling more than $10 million, are among 37 new DOE grants totaling $151 million to support the program.

ASU’s grants are for work on a new class of high-performance metal-air batteries and the use of photosynthetic bacteria to produce automotive fuel from a combination of sunlight, water and carbon dioxide.

“ASU is the only university to be heading up two of these highly competitive projects,” said Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, ASU’s deputy vice president for research and economic affairs.

DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program has the goal of developing nimble, creative and inventive approaches to transform the global energy landscape while advancing America’s technology leadership.

In announcing the awards, U.S. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu said “ARPA-E is a crucial part of the new effort by the U.S. to spur the next Industrial Revolution in clean energy technologies, creating thousands of new jobs and helping cut carbon pollution.” The program is generally considered as an effort to “hit a home run” in advanced alternative energy research.

Inspired by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, ARPA-E was created to support high-risk, high-reward research that can provide transformative new solutions for climate change and energy security. This first ARPA-E solicitation was highly competitive, with more than 3,600 concept papers received. Of that, some 300 were chosen for full application submissions and 37 were finally selected for funding. ASU is the only institution to lead more than one ARPA-E grant, from a pool of awardees that includes MIT, Stanford University, Michigan State University, E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co., Ohio State University, Penn State University and United Technologies Research Center.

Panchanathan added that these grants, along with the high profile $14 million grant recently awarded by the DOE for an Energy Frontier Research Center, devoted to creating solar-generated biofuels, testifies to the rapidly emerging leadership of ASU in renewable energy research. ASU has been building up its portfolio in alternative energy research for several years and currently includes, among its capabilities, several advanced programs on solar energy research; one of the leading testing and certification centers for solar energy; and research into solar-generated biofuels including advanced work on algae-based biofuels.

ASU also has launched a new initiative called LightWorks by bringing together the intellectual expertise across the university centered on the idea of harnessing all that the sun has to offer as the ultimate power source of nature and using it to generate electricity, alternative fuels, new forms of lighting, even new medical and health-care devices.

The ASU ARPA-E awards will go toward:

Fuel from sunlight

A $5.2 million grant for two years will fund work on a form of photosynthetic bacteria called cyanobacteria that are modified to over-produce and secrete fatty acids for biofuel feedstocks using just sunlight, water and carbon dioxide as inputs. ASU researchers will work with scientists from North Carolina State University and Diversified Energy on the project.

The project essentially uses the cyanobacteria as biocatalysts for generating the fatty acids which, in turn, are secreted by the cyanobacteria. Fatty acids, a biofuel feedstock, then are used for producing “jet fuel, gasoline, even green diesel fuel,” said lead researcher Wim Vermaas, a professor in ASU’s School of Life Sciences and the Center for Bioenergy and Photosynthesis.

The advantage of the new process is getting the cyanobacteria to secrete the fatty acids, Vermaas said.

“In the past, we had to ‘demolish the factory,’ basically break open the cyanobacteria, to get the product (lipids or fatty acids) out,” Vermaas said. “This process will avoid that because the bacteria secrete the product.”

As a result it would avoid much of the environmental drawbacks to current cyanobacteria or algae conversion processes by not generating leftover biomass – or waste product – when the organisms are cracked open, and avoiding the use of solvents and additional energy normally needed to extract the lipids or fatty acids from the photosynthetic microbes.

The project will lead to a higher efficiency in solar energy conversion to fuel and provide insight into ways to scale the process “so it has a significant impact on environmentally responsible, domestic production of fuels,” Vermaas said.

Co PIs on this project are: Roy Curtiss, Biodesign Institute; Bruce Rittmann, Biodesign Institute and Regents Professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering & Built Environment; David Nielsen, School of Mechanical, Aerospace, Chemical and Materials Engineering; Robert Roberson, School of Life Sciences; Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown, School of Sustainable Engineering & Built Environment.


High-energy batteries

A grant of $5.1 million over two years will help support pursuit of advances in battery technology and energy storage led by Cody Friesen, an associate professor in the School of Mechanical, Aerospace, Chemical and Materials Engineering. ASU will work with researchers from Fluidic Energy Inc., on the project.

Friesen is developing a new type of ultra-high-energy metal-air batteries that use advanced ionic liquids and promise to provide low-cost, long-range power for all-electric and hybrid vehicles. In the long run, this advance could significantly reduce the need for the United States to import oil since more of the energy to power transportation could be drawn from the nation’s electrical grid.

“This has the potential to dramatically decrease the cost of energy storage,” Friesen said. “An electric-vehicle powered by these types of batteries would have a distance range comparable to that of a gasoline-powered vehicle. A cell phone could remain powered for as long as a month without recharging.”

Friesen sees the combination of efforts at the university to advance solar power and energy-storage technologies “demonstrating a holistic approach to energy research that is making ASU a global leader in renewable energy advances.”

Co PIs on this project are Dan Buttry, chemistry and biochemistry; and Karl Sieradzki, School of Mechanical, Aerospace, Chemical and Materials Engineering.

“We need to come up with new, imaginative and elegant ways of generating energy, and smarter ways of consuming that energy so we are not depleting resources and harming our environment,” said Panchanathan. “These projects strive to achieve all of that.”