A half-century ago, after Russia jolted Americans by sending Sputnik into orbit, the Defense Department launched a little-noticed program designed to help the United States leap-frog the frontiers of technology by doling out millions of dollars for research on radically new ideas.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — DARPA in Pentagonese — backed projects that led to such military advances as the light, rapid-fire M-16 rifle and Stealth warplanes that were invisible to radar — but also to revolutionary civilian technology such as the Internet.
Now, the same approach is being tried for energy and "green" technology. While critics say innovation is best achieved by private sector entrepreneurs, the Obama administration is betting an initial $400 million in government seed money on such future possibilities as giant batteries filled with molten metal and exotic materials that spin sunlight and water into methane.
Arun Majumdar, a former University of California-Berkeley professor and national lab assistant director who worked under DARPA funding for a decade, discusses the mission and challenges of ARPA-E — the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.
"We have taken the best practices for how we operate from DARPA," Majumdar said, including focus, collaboration and hiring practices. But unlike the military, which could buy the fruits of DARPA research technologies itself, ARPA-E technologies will have to compete on an existing energy market.
"In some sense," he said, "the challenge is harder."
Q: So the ultimate price of the technologies you're pursuing is very important?
A: We're much more conscious about price (than DARPA). ... One of the main purposes of this summit is, how do we scale innovation in the United States (so that energy technologies are manufactured domestically). ... Our goal is to provide those technologies that allow people to make money. That's the best way to scale in the United States.
Q: Is there pressure on ARPA-E to invest in projects that could show results quickly enough to impact the security, climate and economic debates we're having today?
A: We need to have a balanced portfolio there. Some things we have to invest (in) which are longer term. ... It took 20 years or so for the Internet to scale up. ... I wish we could say, we would develop the equivalent of the Internet in two years. That would be unrealistic.
Q: How will you know when an idea isn't working out?
A: In all our projects, there are certain performance metrics — you have to do it at a certain rate, and at a certain cost ... we tell our (project leaders) if you're going to fail, fail quickly, and learn from it. And if you have a better idea, let us know. We can be flexible.
Q: Why is it important for the government to push such innovation, instead of waiting for the market?
A: The next 20 years is the most important time in our nation's history. Because what we do now will affect the rest of the century.
(c) 2010, Tribune Co.
Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.