In Real Science: Funding for advanced energy research

Nicholas Albertini

In the next week, the Senate is almost certainly going to pass its own version of President Obama’s stimulus package. Though the House put its version through last week, debate over what the Senate’s version of the bill will look like continues. Part of this resolution contains legislation to finally fund an energy research program under the Department of Energy called Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, or ARPA-E, which was created by Congress back in August of 2007. So far, no senators are proposing to cut this funding provision of $400 million.
ARPA-E is modeled after the highly successful DARPA, or Defense- ARPA, program at the Department of Defense. DARPA is the agency that developed the Internet out of a project begun in 1969. The key trait of an ARPA-type program is that it funds extremely “high-risk/high-payoff” technology research. Technology that appears almost impossible to develop, but has some demonstrated scientific basis and would be extraordinarily beneficial to some necessary endeavor, would qualify for this program.
This year, for example, DARPA initiated a project called Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics, or SyNAPSE. It plans on developing neuron-like computing circuits with evolvable connectivity properties known as plasticity and using these neuron-like circuits to build synthetic brains on the scale of biological brains in terms of size and energy efficiency.
They are talking about demonstrating a synthetic brain analogous to that of a cat by 2013 and wish to build superhuman intelligences at some point after that. And, of course, they would like to put some of them into heavily armed robotic platforms. Though such a project does not appear feasible at first glance, IBM seems to have the confidence to take it on. They were awarded a large part of the project’s funding in November.
This project is typical of DARPA’s method. They begin with a far-out concept backed by real science and then develop it in a cost-effective way, moving from low to high funding based upon success in meeting predetermined benchmarks.
Now our country will turn this highly effective technology development method toward solving the energy problem. If ARPA-E is anywhere near as successful as DARPA has been since its creation in 1958, we will undoubtedly see rapid advancement in energy production and efficiency technologies. It is a wonder that this model of technology research has not been reproduced before 2009. New ARPA programs should be considered as a means of attacking other areas of technological need in the future.