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Innovative Development in Energy-Related Applied Science

The IDEAS program - short for Innovative Development in Energy-Related Applied Science - provides a continuing opportunity for the rapid support of early-stage applied research to explore pioneering new concepts with the potential for transformational and disruptive changes in energy technology. IDEAS awards, which are restricted to maximums of one year in duration and $500,000 in funding, are intended to be flexible and may take the form of analyses or exploratory research that provides the agency with information useful for the subsequent development of focused technology programs. IDEAS awards may also support proof-of-concept research to develop a unique technology concept, either in an area not currently supported by the agency or as a potential enhancement to an ongoing focused technology program. This program identifies potentially disruptive concepts in energy-related technologies that challenge the status quo and represent a leap beyond today's technology. That said, an innovative concept alone is not enough. IDEAS projects must also represent a fundamentally new paradigm in energy technology and have the potential to significantly impact ARPA-E's mission areas.

Bigwood Systems, Inc.

Global-Optimal Power Flow (G-OPF)

Bigwood Systems is developing a comprehensive Optimal Power Flow (OPF) modelling engine that will enhance the energy efficiency, stability, and cost effectiveness of the national electric grid. Like water flowing down a hill, electricity takes the path of least resistance which depends on the grid network topology and on grid controls. However, in a complicated networked environment, this can easily lead to costly congestion or shortages in certain areas of the electric grid. Grid operators use imperfect solutions like approximations, professional judgments, or conservative estimates to try to ensure reliability while minimizing costs. Bigwood Systems' approach will combine four separate analytical technologies to develop an OPF modeling engine that could markedly improve management of the grid. As part of this project, Bigwood Systems will demonstrate the practical applications of this tool in partnership with the California Independent System Operator (CAISO).

California Institute of Technology

Mechanistic Explanation of Acoustic Wave Enhanced Catalysis (AWEC); An Opportunity for Catalytic Transformations With Greatly Reduced Energy Costs

The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) team is using first-principles reasoning (i.e. a mode of examination that begins with the most basic physical principles related to an issue and "builds up" from there) and advanced computational modeling to ascertain the underlying mechanisms that cause acoustic waves to affect catalytic reaction pathways. The team will first focus their efforts on two types of reactions for which there is strong experimental evidence that acoustic waves can enhance catalytic activity: Carbon Monoxide (CO) oxidation, and Ethanol decomposition. Armed with this new understanding, the team will suggest promising applications for acoustic wave enhanced catalysis to new reactions with large energy and emissions footprints, such as ammonia synthesis. As an ARPA-E IDEAS project, this research is at a very early stage. However, this novel approach to acoustic wave enhanced catalysis has the potential to improve energy and resource efficiency across broad swathes of the chemical, industrial, and other sectors of the economy.

California Institute of Technology

Nanomechanics of Electrodeposited Li

The team at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) has developed a method to determine the mechanical properties of lithium as a function of size, temperature, and microstructure. The body of scientific knowledge on these properties and the way dendrites form and grow is very limited, in part due to the reactivity of metallic lithium with components of air such as water and carbon dioxide. The team proposes to conduct a targeted investigation on the properties of electrodeposited lithium metal in commercial thin-film solid-state batteries. As part of the effort, the team will perform structural and mechanical testing on electrodeposited lithium, at dendrite-relevant dimensions. Their investigation will provide new information on the microstructure, strength, and stiffness of electrodeposited lithium. Finally, they will conduct cycling experiments on the commercial cells to observe lithium transport and dendrite nucleation and growth. If successful, the project will result in new knowledge about the microstructure and properties of lithium, and may further our understanding of dendrite nucleation and growth mechanisms - a starting point to developing higher energy battery technologies.

Citrine Informatics

A Machine Learning-Based Materials Discovery Paradigm Applied to Solid Ion Conductors

The Citrine Informatics team is demonstrating a proof-of-concept for a system that would use experimental work to intelligently guide the investigation of new solid ionic conductor materials. If successful, the project will create a new approach to material discovery generally and new direction for developing promising ionic conductors specifically. The project will aggregate data (both quantitative and meta-data related to experimental conditions) relevant to ionic conductors from the published literature and build advanced, machine learning models for prediction based upon the resulting large database. The team's system will also experimentally explore the new materials space identified and suggested by the models. The Citrine project could provide researchers near-real-time feedback as they perform experiments, allowing them to dynamically select the most promising research pathways. This would in turn unlock more rapid ionic conductor identification and development, and transform the fields of theoretical and experimental materials science at-large.

Colorado School of Mines


The Colorado School of Mines will develop a membrane reactor concept to synthesize ammonia at ambient pressure. In traditional ammonia production processes, nitrogen (N2) and hydrogen (H2) compete for identical catalyst sites, and the presence of each inhibits the other, with the overall rate reflecting a compromise. The team proposes decoupling and independently controlling the N2 and H2 dissociation by dedicating one side of the composite membrane to each. In this way, the catalysts may be individually optimized. Highly effective catalysts have been previously demonstrated for H2 dissociation, and the team's focus will be on exploring early transition metals which have shown great promise as catalysts for N2 dissociation. When perfected, this technology will allow the production of ammonia at ambient pressure, reducing the scale and number of steps required in the process. This method is also an improvement over electrochemical processes, which have a more complicated design and reduced efficiency due to the need for an external voltage.

Colorado School of Mines

High-Throughput Discovery of Thermoelectric Materials

The Colorado School of Mines will develop a new method for the high-throughput discovery and screening of thermoelectric materials. The objective is to develop a new class of thermoelectric materials that can enable heat-to-electricity efficiencies greater than 20%. Aerosol spray deposition will be used to collect particles on the solid surfaces, allowing high throughput synthesis with finely tuned composition control. To achieve the thermoelectric performance desired, a tight feedback loop between synthesis, characterization, and theory will be employed to actively guide the design of experiments. To identify materials with high mobility and low thermal conductivity, the team developed metrics that combine experimental and computational training data. These efforts are guided by the team's existing high-throughput calculation database, which has identified specific families of previously unexplored materials with high potential for thermoelectric performance. Over the last two years, these computational methods have been applied to 10,000 compounds, yielding the most extensive database of thermoelectric performance in the world. By considering thousands of compositions within a single structural family, trends in electronic and thermal conductivity emerge that could not have been predicted from a few samples produced with traditional bulk ceramic methods. High-throughput search techniques are particularly critical because the desired qualities are likely to only occur within a narrow chemical composition. The team expects to grow and characterize more than 20 macroscopic samples per day, a significant increase in throughput compared to conventional approaches.

Columbia University

Co-Generation of Fuels During Copper Bioleaching

The innovation lies in the exploitation of novel natural energy source: reduced metal deposits. The energy released during oxidation of these metals could be used to reduce CO2 into fuels and chemicals reducing petroleum usage.This proposed project fits within the Chemical-Chemical Area of Interest, as it involves the coupling of the oxidation of reduced minerals in the Earth's crust to the production of reduced carbon chemicals for fuel utilization. This addresses both of Mission Areas of ARPA-E as the co-generation of fuels during copper bioleaching will potentially reduce the import of energy from foreign sources, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve energy efficiency in the mining industry, and ensure that the U.S. maintains a lead in the development of this disruptive new technology.

Columbia University

Can silicon photonics offer a path to low power computing after all?

Columbia University will develop a new platform for generating multiple simultaneous optical channels (wavelengths) with low power dissipation, thereby enabling optical interconnects for low power computing. Optical interconnect links communicate using optical fibers that carry light. Wavelength-division multiplexing (WDM) is a technology that combines a number of optical carrier signals on a single optical fiber by using different wavelengths. This technique enables bidirectional communications over strands of fiber, dramatically increasing capacity. Low-power lasers generate the wavelengths used in a WDM system, but it is important to stabilize the wavelength for each channel to allow for precise separation and filtering. The importance of stabilization increases when the number and density of wavelength channels increases. Energy use also increases because each of the laser sources must be individually stabilized. In contrast, the Columbia team proposes using a single high-powered stabilized laser to generate greater than 50 wavelength sources with high efficiency using an on-chip comb. This approach can improve laser energy efficiency from 0.01% to 10%.

Columbia University


The Columbia University team is developing a proof-of-concept solid-state solution to generate electricity from high-temperature waste heat (~900 K) using thermal radiation between a hot object placed in extreme proximity (<100 nm) to a cooler photovoltaic (PV) cell. In this geometry, thermal radiation can be engineered such that its spectrum is quasi-monochromatic and aligned with the PV cell's bandgap frequency. In this case, it is estimated that electricity can be generated with a conversion efficiency beyond 25% and with a power density that could greatly outperform currently available thermal photovoltaic devices and other thermoelectric generator designs. To overcome the significant challenge of maintaining the proper distance between a hot side emitter and a cooler PV junction to prevent device shorting, the team will develop microelectromechanical actuation systems to optimally orient the PV cell. By providing a universal solid-state solution that can, in principle, be mounted and scaled to any hot surface, this technology could help retrieve a significant fraction of heat wasted by U.S. industries

Cornell University

Engineering High-Energy Secondary Lithium Metal Batteries

Cornell University will develop a new type of rechargeable lithium metal battery that provides superior performance over existing lithium-ion batteries. The anode, or negative side of a lithium-ion battery, is usually composed of a carbon-based material. In lithium metal batteries, the anode is made of metallic lithium. While using metallic lithium could result in double the storage capacity, lithium metal batteries have unreliable performance, safety issues, and premature cell failure. There are two major causes for this performance degradation. First, side reactions can occur between the lithium metal and the liquid or solid electrolyte placed between the positive and negative electrodes. Second, when recharged, branchlike metal fibers called dendrites can grow on the negative electrode. These dendrites can grow to span the space between the negative and positive electrodes, causing short-circuiting. To overcome these challenges, Cornell proposes research to pair a variety of cathodes with a lithium metal anode. The work builds upon recent theoretical and experimental discoveries by the team, which show that a class of structured electrolytes can provide multiple mechanisms for stabilizing lithium metal anodes and suppress dendrite growth. The team will also develop structured electrolyte coatings that provide barriers to oxygen and moisture, but do not impede lithium-ion transport across the electrolyte/electrode interface. Such coatings will suppress the unwelcome lithium metal/electrolyte reactions and will also enable manufacturing of lithium metal batteries under standard dry room conditions. The structures developed could also be used in batteries based on other metals, such as sodium and aluminum that are more abundant and less expensive than lithium, but also affected by dendrite formation.

Cree Fayetteville, Inc.

Compact, High Voltage, High Energy Density Diamond Capacitors for Power Electronics Applications

Cree Fayetteville will develop high voltage (10kV), high energy density (30 J/cm3), high temperature (150 °C+) capacitors utilizing chemical vapor deposition (CVD) diamond capable of powering the next generation of high-performance power electronics systems. CVD diamond is a superior material for capacitors due to its strong electrical, mechanical, and materials qualities that are inherently stable over varying temperatures. It also has similar qualities of single crystal diamond without the high cost. Commercial CVD diamond deposition will be utilized to prove the feasibility of the technology with consistent, low cost, high-resistivity diamond films. The CVD diamond will be used as an optimal dielectric for today's demanding power electronics applications. Most power electronics systems require large capacitors to filter switching noise and provide sufficient energy to loads during transient periods. But present-day film and ceramic capacitor technologies are quickly becoming obsolete as the switching frequency and operating temperature of power electronic systems continue to increase. Using CVD diamond for this purpose may provide a capacitor technology that does not experience lifetime-limiting overheating, at both low frequency (high energy) and high frequency (low equivalent series resistance) conditions, and with reasonable size and cost. In conjunction with a robust electrode metallurgy and proven high-temperature packaging techniques, energy densities in excess of 80 J/cm3 have been modeled; the proposed specification of 30 J/cm3 will be a drastic improvement over current technologies. The team's effort will primarily focus on the development and characterization of multi-layer CVD diamond capacitor design, packaging, and fabrication techniques, resulting in proof of concept prototypes to demonstrate the technology feasibility.

Gas Technology Institute

Methane Soft Oxidation

Gas Technology Institute (GTI) will develop a sulfur-based methane oxidation process, known as soft oxidation, to convert methane into liquid fuels and chemicals. Current gas-to-liquid technology for converting methane to liquid hydrocarbons requires massive scale to achieve economic production. The large plant size makes this approach unsuitable to address the challenge of distributed methane emissions. Soft oxidation is a method better suited to address this challenge because of its modular nature. It also addresses a major limitation of conventional gas-to-liquid technology: the irreversible conversion of methane and oxygen to carbon dioxide. In this project, GTI will demonstrate and optimize a two-step methane soft oxidation process and develop a fully integrated system that converts methane to liquid hydrocarbons, recovers the valuable liquids and hydrogen gas, and recycles the remaining products. A key difference with traditional oxygen-based approaches is that GTI's method allows for some hydrogen recovery, whereas in oxygen-based approaches the hydrogen must be consumed completely. Soft oxidation has a higher efficiency because of this, and it lacks the need for complex heat integration and recovery methods that require large scale plants. If successful, this new process could provide an economic pathway to significantly reduce methane emissions through on-site conversion.

GeneSiC Semiconductor

Novel GaN Transistors for High Power Switching Applications

GeneSiC Semiconductor will lead a team to develop high-power and voltage (1200V) vertical transistors on free-standing gallium nitride (GaN) substrates. Bipolar junction transistors amplify or switch electrical current. NPN junction transistors are one class of these transistors consisting of a layer of p-type semiconductor between two n-type semiconductors. The output electrical current between two terminals is controlled by applying a small input current at the third terminal. The proposed effort combines the latest innovations in device designs/process technology, bulk GaN substrate technology, and innovative metal-organic chemical vapor deposition epitaxial growth techniques. If the proposed design concept is successful, it will enable three-fold improvement of power density in high voltage devices, and provide a low-cost solution for mass market power conversion. Moreover, the device can be processed with significantly lower process complexity and cost, as compared to competing silicon carbide and GaN device technologies. GeneSiC will focus on all device development tasks while its partner, Adroit Materials, will focus on the GaN epitaxial growth on bulk GaN substrates, as well as detailed materials characterization according to specifications generated by GeneSiC.

George Washington University

Transfer Printed Virtual Substrates

George Washington University (GWU) will develop a new technique to produce commercial III-V substrates called Transfer Printed Virtual Substrates (TPVS). To reduce costs, the team proposes using a single source substrate to grow numerous virtual substrate layers. The team will use an enabling technology, called micro-transfer printing (MTP), to transfer the layers from the source substrate, in the form of many microscale "chiplets," and deposit them onto a low-cost handle (silicon, for example). Once printed, the clean surfaces of the MTP process allows each chiplet to complete the epitaxial growth process on the lower cost substrate after having been seeded from the initial source and having sacrificial layers in between to release the chiplets from the source wafer. The TPVS process can potentially yield tens to hundreds virtual substrates from a single source wafer. Any micro/nanoscale device grown on III-V substrates, such as sensors, detectors, lasers, power electronics, and high-speed transistors, will experience significant cost reductions as a direct result of TPVS deployment. TPVS can also reduce the demand for rare minerals used for a wide range of critical technological applications due to the greater efficiency with which each initial source substrate is utilized.

Georgia Tech Research Corporation

Scalable and Robust Zeolitic Imidazolate Framework (ZIF) Membranes Supported on Hollow Fibers for Olefin Separations

Georgia Tech Research Corporation will develop hollow fiber membranes containing metal-organic framework (MOF) thin films to separate propylene from propane. The nanoporous MOF film is supported on the inside surfaces of the tubular polymeric hollow fibers. Chemicals introduced into the center of the tube are separated through the MOF membrane by a molecular sieving process. Traditional olefin production processes are performed at pressures up to 20 bar, requiring large energy and capital costs. A key feature of the team's technology is the ability to synthesize membranes at near-ambient liquid-phase conditions and perform olefin separation at lower pressures as low as 6 bar. As the team evaluates using its MOF membranes to separate propylene from propane, the team will also develop detailed correlations between processing conditions, membrane morphology, and membrane performance. Another important task is to perform a detailed economic evaluation of the technology and establish its economic advantages compared to existing and other proposed technologies. The general separations concept also has potential to be used for a larger range of petrochemical and gas separations.

Grid Logic, Inc.

Production of Nanostructured Core/Shell Powders for Exchange Spring Magnet Applications

The Grid Logic team is adapting a form of vapor deposition technology to demonstrate a new approach to creating powerful hybrid magnets. This "physical vapor deposition particle encapsulation technology" utilizes an inert atmosphere chamber, which allows for precisely controlled and reproducible pressure, gas flow, and fluidization conditions for a powder vessel. The team will use this specialized chamber to fabricate nanostructured exchange-spring magnets, which require careful control of material dimension and composition. Nanostructured exchange-spring magnets are composite magnetic materials that use an exchange between soft magnetic materials, which have high saturation magnetization but are easily demagnetized, and hard magnetic materials that are difficult to demagnetize but have lower saturation magnetization and high coercivity. In this case, the team will create magnets consisting of Manganese Bismuth (MnBi) hard magnetic core particles with nanometer-scale Cobalt (Co) soft magnet shells. If successful, the team will demonstrate a process for producing: 1) A hard magnet core particle capable of withstanding a strong external magnetic field without becoming demagnetized; and 2) A soft magnet shell providing high magnetic saturation (i.e. maximum magnetization due to an external magnetic field). By combining precise control of nano-scale layering, material ratios, and material interfaces the project could develop a magnet that rivals permanent magnets made from rare earth elements. As an ARPA-E IDEAS project, this early stage research will provide proof of concept showing that the particle encapsulation system developed in this project can enable large-scale, cost-efficient production of composite magnets that do not require rare earth elements.

Harvard University

Mining the Deep Sea for Microbial Ethano- and Propanogenesis

Harvard University will develop new methods to harness naturally occurring microbial communities for the biological production of ethane and propane. Strong indirect evidence suggests that ethane and propane are produced in the ocean by communities of benthic microorganisms in unique deep-sea sediments under specific conditions. The team will target the microbial communities in the ethane- and propane-rich hydrothermal sediments of the Guaymas Basin in the Gulf of California. During the project, the team will recover and characterize seafloor sediment from the basin with the goal of identifying the biological processes underlying ethane and propane production, as well as the geochemical and physical conditions required to stimulate and sustain production. The team will also use a competitiveness analysis to evaluate the industrial relevance and scalability of these processes in a laboratory environment. If successful, this work could contribute significantly to the production of valuable ethane and propane from renewable feedstocks for subsequent production of "green" chemicals, products, and fuels.

Harvard University

Transistor-less Power Supply Technology Based on UWBG Nonlinear Transmission Line

Harvard University in partnership with Sandia National Laboratories will develop a transistor-less 16kW DC to DC converter boosting a 0.5kV DC input to 8kV that is scalable to 100kW. If successful, the transistor-less DC to DC converter could improve the performance of power electronics for electric vehicles, commercial power supplies, renewable energy systems, grid operations, and other applications. Converting DC to DC is a two-step process that traditionally uses fast-switching transistors to convert a DC input to an AC signal before the signal is rectified to a DC output. The Harvard and Sandia team will improve the process by replacing the active, fast-switching transistors with a slow switch followed by a passive, nonlinear transmission line (NLTL). The NLTL is a ladder network of passive components (inductors and diodes) that provide a nonlinear output with voltage. The combination of the nonlinear behavior with dispersion converts a quasi-DC input into a series of sharper and taller (amplified) voltage pulses called solitons, thus executing the DC to AC conversion without the use of active, fast-switching transistors. The NLTL will be followed by a high breakdown voltage silicon carbide and/or gallium nitride diode-based accumulator that converts the series of solitons to a DC output. Replacing the fast-switching transistors with a slow switch and a NLTL addresses the cost, size, efficiency, and reliability issues associated with fast switching based converters. Diodes also cost less and last longer because they are simpler structures than transistors and use no dielectrics. Efficiency, cost, and reliability improvements provided by a NLTL-based power converter will drastically benefit commercial power supplies, industrial motors, electric vehicles, data centers, the electric grid, and renewable electric power generation such as solar and wind.

Hi Fidelity Genetics LLC

Non-invasive Field Phenotyping Device for Plant Roots

Hi Fidelity Genetics will develop a low-cost device to measure the characteristics of plant roots and the environmental conditions that affect their development. Their device, called the "RootTracker," is a cylindrical, cage-like structure equipped with sensors on the rings of the cage. Before a seed is planted, farmers can push or twist the RootTracker directly into the soil. A seed is then planted at the top of the cage, allowing the plant to grow naturally while sensors accurately measure root density, growth angles, and growth rates, while having minimal impact on the growth of the plant. The prototype includes additional sensors attached to a removable, reusable rod to monitor environmental conditions. Data gathered by the device can be transmitted wirelessly or recorded internally using a low-cost microcontroller charged by solar power. The main technical challenge is automatically adjusting the calibration of the sensors, which are affected by soil type, soil moisture, and other environmental conditions that can disrupt the signal produced by the sensor. Another challenge is to distinguish between different types of biological matter. The team will also develop software for processing the data generated by the device and conduct laboratory and field tests to assess the performance of the prototype. Data collected by the device will help breeders further optimize root system architecture, which should lead to more energy-efficient crop varieties.


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