Green Tech

Why the DOE brought its energy ‘moonshot factory’ to CES for the first time

The agency wants to show off some of its big bets on the future of green tech.
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Frederic J. Brown/Getty Images

4 min read

From GPS to the internet, very few of the futuristic gadgets gleaming on the floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center during this year’s CES would be possible without breakthroughs made by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA).

Last week, the Department of Energy aimed to show off how it brings that same model of innovation to the future of clean power with ARPA-E’s (the E is for energy) first appearance at the tech industry’s biggest trade show.

The agency spotlighted a range of nascent tech it backs, spanning everything from magnets made without rare-earth metals and wood as tough as steel to hybrid-electric aircraft and pipeline repair robots.

Established in 2007 and formed in the same mold as DARPA, ARPA-E was designed to fund “high-risk, high-reward projects” that it describes as “too early for private-sector investment.” It’s since provided $3.7 billion to more than 1,500 projects. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm has called it a “moonshot factory.”

“At ARPA-E, we embrace the most challenging aspects of innovation because we want to support the most impactful and transformational energy technologies,” ARPA-E Director Evelyn Wang told Tech Brew in an email. “We brought several of these technologies to CES to introduce the electronics community to the sort of cutting-edge energy innovation we support.”

The goal is to fund these ideas to the point where they are seen as more feasible by private investors like venture-capital firms and corporate incubators, according to ARPA-E’s acting deputy director for commercialization, Jonathan Glass. Given how much CES has expanded its focus on energy and sustainability in recent years, the conference started to seem like a “really good fit,” he said.

“Our mission is really getting a really good idea from a very initial lab phase to a well-advanced laboratory prototype that’s now ready for additional funding sources,” Glass said.

Magnets, how do they work?: Some of these technologies have the potential to play a big role in the flashy products on display elsewhere on the show floor. For instance, every smart speaker, EV, and countless other devices contain permanent magnets, which are overwhelmingly made from rare-earth metals like neodymium.

ARPA-E-backed Niron Magnetics seeks to replace these materials with a cleaner and more accessible alternative by manipulating the crystal structure of iron nitride to yield stronger magnets. The company spun out of DOE-funded research at the University of Minnesota in 2014, and it recently raised $33 million in additional funding with investments from the venture arms of GM and Stellantis, among others.

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“It’s been this really amazing story of government, academia, [and] private venture investing in private enterprise, and then large companies also funding the development of this to get it to scale,” Andy Blackburn, Niron’s former CEO and current EVP of strategy and board vice chair, told Tech Brew.

Wood is the new steel: InventWood was born out of a similar confluence of funding entities backing its science to densify and chemically treat wood, creating a material it says is stronger than steel. The goal is to replace steel and concrete with a more sustainable building material.

InventWood CTO Jiaqi Dai said ARPA-E first funded it in 2018, which helped open the door to collaboration with national labs and other federal government-run science hubs.

“Back then, this technology was just a paper published in Nature,” Dai said. “There’s a lot of risks of developing technology. People question their success rates, so it’s hard to obtain money from private equities and stuff.”

Pluto the robot: Alexander Duncan, lead robotics engineer at GE Research, worked with ARPA-E backing on a robot that can move inside underground pipe infrastructure and rehabilitate it by coating the inside with epoxy material. (The robot is dubbed PLUTO, which stands for “pipeline underground trenchless overhaul” and makes reference to the god of the underworld.) PLUTO’s process avoids the need to dig up and replace entire pipes, which Duncan said tends to be the current go-to method.

“It is kind of a scary thought to think that whatever city you live in has X amount of pipe repair they need to do to prevent leaks of methane and potentially more dangerous cracks, leaks, all sorts of things, and they can get to, you know, 2% of it on their annual budget,” Duncan said.

A photo of the PLUTO robot

GE Research

Glass said his job—and ARPA-E’s mandate—is to make investments that have the potential to be commercially transformative beyond just science for its own sake.

That means there’s a chance some of the agency’s tech ends up being just as ubiquitous on the CES floor in the coming years as DARPA’s innovation has been in most modern technology.

Keep up with the innovative tech transforming business

Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.