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ARPA-E: Innovating Through Unconventional Ideas

Earlier this year, ARPA-E announced funding for a range of the most innovative and unconventional ideas across the energy technology spectrum, exploring high-risk R&D that could lead to the development of disruptive technologies. The topics explored under this opportunity are not part of existing ARPA-E programs, but if successful could establish new program areas for ARPA-E to further explore.

The first of these topics, extremely durable concretes and cementitious materials, tackles technology challenges in the development of widely applicable concrete and cement. Cement is the second most used substance in the world (next to water), largely due to its low cost, abundance, and reliability in a wide variety of environments. Cement has been a LITERAL building block of society dating back to the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, but current production and utilization methods pose significant energy and emissions challenges. These threaten cement’s growth as domestic infrastructure degrades with age.

Cement is important to U.S. energy production, as well as to infrastructure industry. The International Energy Agency estimated that in 2016 the cement and concrete sector consumed 10.5 exa-joules of energy and generated 2.2 gigatons of CO2 emissions globally. ARPA-E is seeking to develop novel materials for infrastructure with improved performance and lifetime and lower energy and emissions impacts. These projects present opportunities to develop material and process improvements that could improve the durability of cement, while maintaining or lowering production and deployment-related emissions. They could also ensure new types of cement are cost-competitive with existing traditional materials.

The second of these topics, downhole tools to enable enhanced geothermal systems, seeks to better develop novel, low-cost sensor technologies that can help mitigate risks and lower costs for deep, extremely hot enhanced geothermal systems (EGS) by better characterizing rock formations and fluid enthalpy at depth. EGS technology has the potential to improve the economic cost-competitiveness of geothermal energy, while also lessening geographic restrictions of geothermal as an energy sources.

The U.S. possesses a massive strategic asset in its existing supply of geothermal energy, and deep extremely hot EGS represent a potential zero-carbon resource capable of delivering hundreds of gigawatts of baseload electricity with a very small land footprint per unit power. Additionally, developing downhole sensor technologies leverages existing domestic oil and gas industry’s sophisticated subsurface techniques and sources of human capital, offering the potential to improve and innovate on technologies that could also be utilized elsewhere in the aerospace, automotive, nuclear, and even space exploration fields.

The third of these topics for innovative and unconventional ideas, leveraging innovations supporting nuclear energy, is the development of technologies that will reduce the cost of nuclear energy. These projects seek to develop advancements in nuclear facility sensors, tools, analytics and controls.

The next generation of nuclear reactor plants needs innovative, safe, and secure technologies to supplement advanced reactor designs. A variety of advanced nuclear reactor designs are being developed in the U.S., and they require a variety of design options to meet future market needs.

The fourth of these unconventional topics seeks to enable state-of-the-art diagnostic measurements to be made on potentially transformative, ARPA-E-supported fusion-energy concepts in order to validate their performance, uncover problems, and guide research priorities.  The selections seek to develop plasma diagnostic systems that can be transported to and shared among different fusion experiments, leveraging the diagnostic expertise of the entire fusion R&D community, and to develop the teams and experience necessary to support an expanding role for public/private partnerships in fusion. 

Fusion technology has been pursued for decades as an ideal power source with abundant fuel, effectively zero emissions, no long-lived radioactive waste, and minimal proliferation risk. Early-stage fusion experiments like those supported by ARPA-E can broadly benefit from state-of-the-art diagnostic systems and measurements, which often cost as much as or more than the experiment itself, and thus typically such experiments and projects teams do not have access to the types of measurements this program will enable.

Take a look at ARPA-E’s selections for projects to develop and support the validation of potentially transformative fusion-energy concepts.

Diagnostic Resource Teams to Support the Validation of Potentially Transformative Fusion-Energy Concepts

California Institute of Technology

TRANSPORTABLE THOMSON SCATTERING DIAGNOSTIC FOR MEASURING DENSITY AND TEMPERATURE IN FUSION-RELEVANT MAGNETIZED INERTIAL FUSION PLASMAS - $400,000.00

Support design, operation, and data analysis for a transportable Thomson scattering diagnostic to provide a direct measurement of the temperature and density of magnetized inertial fusion experiments. The system will measure the electron density and temperature and so confirm whether experiments have reached fusion-relevant parameters.

LAWRENCE LIVERMORE NATIONAL LABORATORY

ABSOLUTE NEUTRON RATE MEASUREMENT AND NON-THERMAL/THERMONUCLEAR FUSION DIFFERENTIATION - $1,326,530.00

Design, build and operate a robust, portable neutron detection system that will serve as a powerful diagnostic tool in support of efforts to transform fusion energy. The tool’s design will allow for a flexible and mobile experimental setup, enabling it to provide effective, expertly calibrated, diagnostic measurements at multiple fusion facilities.

LOS ALAMOS NATIONAL LABORATORY

PORTABLE NEUTRON AND SOFT X-RAY DIAGNOSTICS FOR TRANSFORMATIVE FUSION-ENERGY CONCEPTS - $630,000.00

Develop a portable suite of soft x-ray diagnostics to characterize the performance of a number of fusion energy concepts. The tool will estimate core electron temperature, and use time resolved spectroscopy to monitor the time evolution of experimental fusion plasmas. With the use of a framing camera, the team also expects to be able to identify hot regions and structures in the plasma.

OAK RIDGE NATIONAL LABORATORY

A PORTABLE DIAGNOSTIC PACKAGE FOR SPECTROSCOPIC MEASUREMENT OF KEY PLASMA PARAMETERS IN TRANSFORMATIVE FUSION ENERGY DEVICES - $1,106,000.00

Assemble a portable diagnostic package to make measurements of key plasma parameters, including electron temperature. Unprecedented diagnostic portability will be achieved through innovative use of off-the-shelf components and specialized, highly portable lasers. This portable diagnostic package will be capable of providing radial profiles of electron density and temperature as well as radial profiles of ion density, temperature, and flow velocity on a variety of fusion energy devices.

UNIVERSITY OF ROCHESTER

LLE DIAGNOSTIC RESOURCE TEAM FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF INNOVATIVE FUSION CONCEPTS - $1,000,000.00

Form a diagnostic team to provide travelling neutron diagnostics including calibrations, analysis techniques, and expert consultants to fusion projects. Neutron time-of-flight (nTOF) detectors will be deployed to multiple fusion projects, providing calibrated, expert measurement of plasma properties.

UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA - DAVIS

ELECTRON DENSITY PROFILE MEASUREMENTS USING USPR - $443,863.00

Fabricate an ultrashort pulse reflectometer (USPR) diagnostic instrument for electron density profile measurements on compact, short duration, magnetically-confined fusion-energy concept device. Central to the system is a field programmable gate array based controller which will collect and process all of the USPR data in addition to generating all of the control signals needed for maximum flexibility.

LAWRENCE LIVERMORE NATIONAL LABORATORY

A PORTABLE OPTICAL THOMSON SCATTERING SYSTEM - $2,000,000.00

Implement an optical Thomson scattering diagnostic to measure electron density and temperature, as well as ion temperature. This approach could transform the understanding of the underlying physics of each fusion concept by providing local, time resolved measurements of plasma conditions.

PRINCETON PLASMA PHYSICS LABORATORY

A PORTABLE ENERGY DIAGNOSTIC FOR TRANSFORMATIVE ARPA-E FUSION ENERGY R&D - $290,000.00

Build and calibrate a portable diagnostic for measuring ion energies in potentially transformative fusion-power projects. This portable passive charge-exchange stripping-cell ion energy analyzer (SC-IEA), will feature lightweight design, due to modern vacuum equipment and controls. The SC-IEA will measure ion temperature and the ion energy distribution function (IEDF)--understanding and controlling the IEDF is critical to achieving fusion energy.

Leveraging Innovations Supporting Nuclear Energy

National Energy Technology Laboratory

DISTRIBUTED NUCLEAR REACTOR CORE MONITORING WITH SINGLE-CRYSTAL HARSH-ENVIRONMENT OPTICAL FIBERS - $2,027,499.00

NETL seeks to produce a novel fiber-optic sensor system for monitoring advanced nuclear reactors that will permit operators to view conditions inside molten-salt cooling loops and inside reactor cores simultaneously and in real-time. This high level of data visibility will enable advanced automation in new reactor systems, and enable design engineers to accelerate the deployment of new reactor designs for commercial use.

Southern Research Institute

MACHINE LEARNING FOR AUTOMATED MAINTENANCE OF FUTURE MSR - $2,059,661.00

Southern Research Institute proposes to transition most reactor maintenance activities from being done manually to people overseeing autonomous maintenance robotic systems, to reduce costs and avoid personnel exposure to radiation. To achieve this level of control, robots will be trained in a virtual environment through the use of virtual reality and machine learning to perform routine maintenance.

North Carolina State University

A DATA-DRIVEN APPROACH TO HIGH PRECISION CONSTRUCTION AND REDUCED OVERNIGHT COST AND SCHEDULE - $1,584,842.00

NC State proposes to develop an innovative virtual environment to digitally manage the performance of nuclear construction. The team envisions this construction performance modeling and simulation (CPMS) environment will facilitate automated inspections of components and subsystems before shipping, which will reduce construction staffing levels, improve supply chain efficiency, and prevent delays due to quality and compatibility issues.

Idaho National Laboratory

NEXT-GENERATION METAL FUEL - $1,800,000.00

INL and its partners are proposing a next generation metal fuel in support of a megawatt-scale compact fast reactor – being developed by Oklo Inc – that is uniquely sized for off-grid applications. The team seeks to develop a fuel with a demonstrated production process and validated performance that incorporates engineered porosity to absorb and retain produced gasses, allowing for higher operating temperatures, as well as a diffusion barrier between the fuel alloy and the cladding to avoid material degradation, which removes the need for the complicated-to-manufacture sodium bond between fuel and cladding.

Downhole Tools to Enable Enhanced Geothermal Systems

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

NEXT GENERATION HIGH-TEMPERATURE OPTICAL FIBERS – $800,000.00

Develop a novel process for applying metallic coatings to optical fibers that will allow the fabrication of distributed optical sensors for high-temperature geothermal wells and explore quantum sensing techniques to dramatically increase sensitivities. This new optical technology will fill an important technology gap to enable distributed sensing in high-temperature enhanced geothermal system wells and help optimize production.

Fervo Energy Company

SOLVE EGS: SURFACE ORBITAL VIBRATOR FOR EVALUATION OF ENHANCED GEOTHERMAL SYSTEMS – $1,180,000.00

The proposed fiber-optics based integrated tool will provide an unprecedented level of detail on the most critical aspects of an Enhanced Geothermal System (EGS) – the hydromechanical properties and geometry of the fracture zones that provide flow connections between the reservoir and the well. It has the potential to play a major role in catalyzing the 100 GW, $300B opportunity for EGS in the United States.

Extremely Durable Concretes and Cementitious Materials

The Regents of the University of California

LOW-TEMPERATURE ARCHITECTED CEMENTATION AGENTS (LAMINAE) – $2,000,000.00

Develop process to enable low-temperature activation of precursor materials that are geologically sourced and/or that comprise alkaline industrial wastes. Approaches provide alternatives to ordinary Portland cement that have significantly lower energy intensity and greatly enhanced durability.

The Regents of the University of Michigan

DEVELOPMENT OF AN EXTREMELY DURABLE CONCRETE (EDC) - A NOVEL APPROACH COUPLING CHEMISTRY AND AUTOGENOUS CRACK WIDTH CONTROL – $1,377,690.26

Develop a novel ductile EDC that is resistant to chemical attacks and possesses built-in crack width control not feasible with current concrete. This new concrete is targeted to meet everyday construction requirements and have tensile resistance that dramatically enables efficient additive manufacturing and the construction of resilient energy facilities. 

University of California, San Diego

EXTREMELY DURABLE AND LOW-COST CONCRETE: ULTRALOW BINDER CONTENT AND ULTRAHIGH TENSILE DUCTILITY – $1,499,146.00 

Develop ultralow-binder-content ductile concrete (UDC), a low-cost, highly durable, strong, energy-efficient, and low-emission infrastructural material. UDC will be lower cost, greater ductility, and longer lifetime than ordinary portland cement.

Georgia Institute of Technology

DEVELOPMENT OF AN ADVANCED ULTRASONIC PHASED ARRAY FOR THE CHARACTERIZATION OF THICK, REINFORCED CONCRETE COMPONENTS – $867,261.00

Develop phased array technology to enable “medical quality” imaging and characterization of thick reinforced concrete components. This early detection technology could prioritize maintenance to avoid macrocrack formation which could significantly increase the durability of existing concrete components, reducing lifecycle energy and emissions costs. 

University of Kentucky

BELITE CEMENT, AND CONCRETES: NOVEL LOW-ENERGY APPROACHES TO MAKING CONCRETE EXTREMELY DURABLE – $1,401,064.71

Develop an extremely durable belite-based cement alternative to ordinary portland cement that is low-energy consuming and low-carbon releasing. The material would use less energy, release less CO2 and excel in performance and durability over time.

University of Florida

BORON CONCRETE FOR ACTIVE FORMATION OF LITHIUM AS MITIGATION OF NEUTRON-INDUCED EXPANSION AND PASSIVE NEUTRON ABSORPTION – $1,079,999.17 

Develop a means to combat the damage that neutron exposure causes to concrete used to house nuclear reactors. The project will explore novel additives incorporating boron and will determine whether or not, when bombarded with neutron radiation, these can produce lithium that improves the concrete’s strength and extends its lifetime.

University of Colorado Boulder

GEOPOLYMER CEMENTS: RESISTANCE-ENGINEERED SEWER INFRASTRUCTURE FOR LONGEVITY USING INNOVATIVE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT, SYNTHESIS TECHNIQUES (RESILIENT) – $1,205,353.00

Develop ultra-acid-resistant, low-calcium geopolymer cements that take advantage of reduced heat-curing and lower alkali conditions, for wastewater (i.e., sewer) and other infrastructure applications. The project aims to provide an alternative material technology solution that will extend the service life of concrete infrastructure and reduce total life cycle energy, economic, and environmental costs.

Carnegie Mellon University

INTEGRATED DESIGN OF CHEMICAL ADMIXTURE SYSTEMS FOR ULTRADURABLE, LOW CO2 ALTERNATIVE BINDER CHEMISTRIES VIA MACHINE LEARNING – $566,370.00 

Develop a machine learning algorithm to guide the design of molecular additives that streamline the path for alternative binder chemistries concrete use in existing construction methods and equipment. The central goals are to increase the durability of US infrastructure by at least twofold and reduce the energy expended in producing this concrete by at least half. 

Washington State University

BIOPOLYMER MODIFIED CEMENTITIOUS SYSTEMS WITH RADICALLY SUPERIOR STRENGTH AND DURABILITY – $644,116.00

Develop a scalable process to fortify cement paste at the atomic scale with biopolymer-based nanomaterials derived from chitin, a waste material produced by the seafood industry in millions of tons annually. The newly enabled concrete is envisioned to transform the U.S. construction market, saving of dollars in repair and reconstruction costs every year and dramatically improving lifecycle energy and emissions costs for infrastructure.

Oregon State University

DEVELOPMENT OF THERMODYNAMIC AND KINETIC SIMULATION TOOLS AND TESTING PROCEDURES FOR ENHANCED DURABILITY OF CONCRETE CONTAINING INDUSTRIAL BY-PRODUCTS – $1,305,798.00

Develop computational tools to evaluate the feasibility of using industrial by-product materials to make low energy cements. The objective is to reduce energy demand and greenhouse emissions related to the production of cements, to leverage the practical economic benefits of low-energy binder systems, and to produce highly durable concrete.

University of Utah

SELF-SUSTAINING CEMENTITIOUS SYSTEMS IN ROMAN REACTIVE GLASS CONCRETES – $1,430,556.00

Develop extremely durable concretes with engineered foam glass aggregates that mimic the reactive volcanic glass of 2000-year-old Roman architectural and marine concretes. These innovative materials, mixtures and processing technologies, could improve durability at 4 times typical 50-year Portland cement concrete service life and reduce by up to 85% the energy and emissions associated with production and deployment. 

C-Crete Technologies

IRRADIATION, HEAT, AND CORROSION RESISTANT HEXAGONAL BORON NITRIDE-CEMENT COATING FOR MITIGATING AGING AND IRRADIATION EFFECTS IN NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS – $750,000.00

Develop next generation cementitious coating materials to extend the lifetime of key infrastructures subject to extreme conditions such as nuclear power plants. Strategically couple emerging 2D materials technology with lamellar structure of low-CO2 cement to impart greater synergy.