We’re from the government and we’re here to listen.

That was the opening message from top Department of Energy officials at the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy Innovation Summit in Washington, DC. The conference, being headlined Feb. 28-29 by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and former president Bill Clinton, is drawing more than 2,400 participants from the worlds of science, engineering, energy and venture capital.

ARPA-E uses its federal dollars to partner with private-sector research teams to advance innovative energy technologies affecting transportation, power, and efficiency. That means, officials said, their success depends on finding those partners, and they hope summit participants are just the people they’ve been looking for.

Deputy Director for Commercialization Cheryl Martin said she wants participants to leave saying, “I met people who can help me move my dream forward.”

Deputy Director for Technology Eric Toone said ARPA-E is looking above all for projects that can make a difference. The agency’s first question, he said, is: “If it works, will it matter?”

“Our aim is disruptive technologies,” said ARPA-E Director Arun Majumdar, defining “disruptive” as lower cost and higher performance than current technologies.

Toone said the agency seeks projects that involve “transformational technology,” but build on established physical principles – ARPA-E does not fund basic physics research. And, he stressed, “It’s important to us not to displace private development money” by funding projects ready for deployment.

Majumdar said ARPA-E also looks for projects supported by highly qualified teams, particularly ones that bring together scientists from different disciplines to collaborate on innovative approaches. Projects must propose a timeline with milestones, project directors are typically given three years to achieve results, and ARPA-E may withdraw from projects that don’t meet commitments.

Exotic Concepts

Speakers stressed the agency tries to avoid choosing technology but focuses instead on setting results expected, such as specifying cost levels for energy storage rather than the means.

The projects get exotic quickly. For instance, in the fuels area, ARPA-E Project Director Jonathan Burbaum said when he started, he saw research was ongoing in trying to develop plants that could be converted to fuels like ethanol more efficiently, and other research was already trying to replicate plant chemical processes in the lab. So he chose projects in the “white space” between those, trying to get plants to make fuel directly. That requires work on both better photosynthesis and altered plant metabolisms.

For more on work in advanced biofuels research, some of it funded by major oil and chemical companies, read here.

Other projects are looking at organisms from deep undersea with life processes based on elements other than oxygen. They never see the sun and get their life energy from an assortment of sources, and in ingenious ways, that are still being discovered.

Still others focus on innovative energy storage, controls and materials, applicable to both vehicles and the electric grid, and the conference even includes sessions titled simply “Emerging Ideas” for those whose innovations don’t seem to fit anywhere else.