Government Conference Looking For Solutions To Big Puzzles

Happy to hear that there are still such efforts (conferences such as the one described below) underway and that they are inclined to the audacious. Thanks to Brad Plumer, at the New York Times, for this report:

Kelp Farms and Mammoth Windmills Are Just Two of the Government’s Long-Shot Energy Bets

Thousands of entrepreneurs gathered near Washington this week for an annual government conference. On the agenda: unusual solutions to major clean-energy problems.

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A kelp forest off Mexico’s Pacific coast. A project presented this week at an energy research conference proposes using tiny robots to farm seaweed for use in biofuels. Credit Reinhard Dirscherl/ullstein bild, via Getty Images

Off the coast of California, the idea is that someday tiny robot submarines will drag kelp deep into the ocean at night, to soak up nutrients, then bring the plants back to the surface during the day, to bask in the sunlight.

The goal of this offbeat project? To see if it’s possible to farm vast quantities of seaweed in the open ocean for a new type of carbon-neutral biofuel that might one day power trucks and airplanes. Unlike the corn- and soy-based biofuels used today, kelp-based fuels would not require valuable cropland.

Of course, there are still some kinks to work out. “We first need to show that the kelp doesn’t die when we take it up and down,” said Cindy Wilcox, a co-founder of Marine BioEnergy Inc., which is doing early testing this summer.

Ms. Wilcox’s venture is one of hundreds of long shots being funded by the federal government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. Created a decade ago, ARPA-E now spends $300 million a year nurturing untested technologies that have the potential — however remote — of solving some of the world’s biggest energy problems, including climate change.

This week at a convention center near Washington, thousands of inventors and entrepreneurs gathered at the annual ARPA-E conference to discuss the obstacles to a cleaner energy future. Researchers funded by the agency also showed off their ideas, which ranged from the merely creative (a system to recycle waste heat in Navy ships) to the utterly wild (concepts for small fusion reactors).

Consider, for instance, wind power. In recent years, private companies have been aiming to build ever-larger turbines offshore to try to catch the steadier winds that blow higher in the atmosphere and produce electricity at lower cost. One challenge is to design blades as long as football fields that will not buckle under the strain.

At the conference, one team funded by ARPA-E showed off a new design for a blade, inspired by the leaves of palm trees, that can sway with the wind to minimize stress. The group will test a prototype this summer at the Department of Energy’s wind-testing center in Colorado, and ARPA-E has connected the team with private companies such as Siemens and the turbine manufacturer Vestas that can critique their work…

Read the whole article here.

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