Under Steven Chu, the US Department of Energy (DoE) has never been so science-friendly. DoE has created and funded an idea’s incubation unit and has been busy with, in the energy secretary’s oft-quoted phrase, its “hunt for miracles” to transform America’s energy landscape.

The most substantial backing from the DoE’s Adnvanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (arpa-e) so far has been the package of grants, totalling more than US$92m, it announced in July. Among these, the largest single grant was one of more than US$5m to HRL Laboratories (formerly Hughes Research Laboratories), whose partners include GM, for a project to develop Gallium Nitride, a semiconductor material, to make small, efficient battery switches so that electric vehicles can interact more efficiently with the grid. Most of the grants on that list are to similar projects aimed at better batteries, more efficient grids, etc.

Impressive as these innovations promise to be, others working outside of the DoE’s aegis offer truly inventive breakthroughs. A team led by Michael Strano of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has used a combination of nanotechnology and bioengineering to reproduce nature’s “self-repairing” mechanism for solar cells. As Science News describes the process on its website, it could lead to solar cells with an indefinite lifetime:

The researchers began with light-harvesting reaction centers from a purple bacterium. Then they added some proteins and lipids for structure, and carbon nanotubes to conduct the resulting electricity.

These ingredients were added to a water-filled dialysis bag — the kind used to filter the blood of someone whose kidneys don’t work — which has a membrane that only small molecules can pass through. The soupy solution also contained sodium cholate, a surfactant to keep all the ingredients from sticking together. 

When the team filtered the surfactant out of the mix, the ingredients self-assembled into a unit, capturing light and generating an electric current.

Just as remarkable, Synthetic Genomics is researching DNA engineering that may lead, as the New York Times reports, to a way to transform coal into natural gas or to cut out the middle man, as it were, so that plants can produce fuel directly rather than via an expensive and energy-intensive refining process. It is getting substantial backing from industry:

Exxon Mobil is giving Synthetic Genomics $300 million in research financing to design algae that could be used to produce gasoline and diesel fuel. (The new greenhouse will be used for that research.)

BP has invested in the company itself, turning to Synthetic Genomics to study microbes that might help turn coal deposits into cleaner-burning natural gas. Another investor, the Malaysian conglomerate Genting, wants to improve oil output from its palm tree plantations, working toward what its chief executive calls a “gasoline tree.”


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