More than 50 years ago, the United States created the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to foster innovation in space technologies, national defense, and information technologies. One result: the creation of the Internet. In 2007 Congress created the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) in an effort to mimic DARPA’s success and ensure that America remains a world leader in science and technology. NEWSWEEK’s R. M. Schneiderman spoke with the director of ARPA-E, Arun Majumdar, to learn more about the future of the agency and how its projects will help spur innovation in green cars.
How aggressively should we be pursuing electric cars?
One of our mission statements is to enhance energy and economic security for the United States. Part of that is to reduce our imports of energy from foreign countries. Obviously our biggest import is oil. I think electric cars are an option we need to pursue very aggressively. But I think an internal-combustion engine will still be around. The biggest obstacle in the electrification of cars is the battery. The challenge in that is that the energy density of the battery, which controls how much energy you can pack in a certain amount of weight, is just not enough today. And today’s batteries—lithium-ion batteries—the costs are just too high. To use a football analogy, lithium-ion batteries are like a running game. But you need a passing game as well.
So what’s the passing game?
We are funding a whole portfolio of approaches that range from zinc-air batteries, magnesium-ion batteries, lithium-air batteries, lithium-sulfur batteries, etc. We don’t know which ones will succeed in the end. It’s too risky for the private sector to invest in. So we said, let’s give this a shot and perhaps a few of them will become business-ready, and then the private sector will pick them up.
In terms of green car technology, where do we stand in comparison with other leading nations?
China is moving very aggressively, and they are building up their infrastructure. They are doing the right thing for their own country. I believe we are still ahead in R&D and innovation. But in terms of deployment of clean energy technology, China is probably the most aggressive in the world. I personally feel that the fact that China is building up its infrastructure in clean energy is a huge opportunity for the United States. And we should grab that and develop innovative technologies out here, manufacture them out here, and sell them to China, India, Brazil, and South Africa.
To what extent would doing so help U.S. manufacturers and create jobs?
There are huge opportunities. If we create a battery that is 10 times better in costs and performance, if one of our teams succeeds and we keep our production out here, this is an opportunity, which is analogous to the chip industry. Just like you have Intel inside almost all computers, we could have a battery inside all the electric plug-in hybrids in the future. That’s a humongous global market, and no one has the battery yet.
Will those jobs stay in the U.S.?
That’s a difficult question. What keeps me awake at night is not whether we will innovate. We will. But my worry is that it will scale elsewhere in the world. We need to keep these innovations inside the country and help them create green jobs. I’m not a policy wonk, but the government is the biggest purchaser of energy. And if we could use that purchasing power in some way and create a platform to pull some clean energy into the market and create demand, I think that would be healthy, and it would allow many companies that are innovating right now to put a manufacturing plant out here in the United States.
How much should Congress be investing in your agency to stay competitive with other countries?
ARPA-E is supposed to be DARPA-like. DARPA was started in 1958. But the first appropriated budget was in 1962. So in 1962, the DARPA budget was $246 million. You could do the math and see what it should be today; it would be more than $1 billion.