Two floors below where energy industry head honchos riffed on the future of power in America, research teams from across the country displayed some of their visions — some short-term, others far, far away — at the ARPA-E Technology Showcase.
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Essentially a super-charged science fair, the showcase featured dozens of whirring, blinking and buzzing projects, virtually all looking for investors, partners or – in the case of one Defense Department project – an energy whiz bright enough to figure out how to power a so-called “Iron Man” exoskeleton for soldiers.
Read on for some of the highlights from the showcase. Visit the ARPA-E website for details.
A turbine churned a jar of dyed water in a display booth hosted by researchers from Columbia University. The mock-up - featuring a table full of colored tubes and jars - illustrated the process the team hopes to harness to develop the next biofuel: isobutyl. The researchers, led by professor Scott Banta, say the substance - which does not come from corn or other crops - packs more energy than ethanol and is also more sustainable to produce.
Z. Zak Fang, center, shows off his team’s thermal battery. Using metal hydrides – made from magnesium, titanium and other materials – the battery draws excess power from other sources, such as power outlets or truck exhaust, to efficiently generate heating and air-conditioning. Fang, a professor at the University of Utah, said the battery could prove especially useful for long-haul truck drivers, who normally leave their trucks idling overnight so they can sleep with heating or air-conditioning. The battery, having already built-up a charge from the vehicle’s engine while driving, would be ready to emit warm or cool air with just the click of a button, without having to keep the truck’s motor running.
Dais Analytic Corporation exhibited what it called NanoAir, a device it’s developing to dehumidify the air that’s entering a building, which in turn would make air-conditioning units more efficient. A vacuum essentially pulls water vapor from the air, and it’s then released through membranes into the air.
Babak Fahimi, a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, is working to develop a new electric motor to power future wind turbines and electric vehicles. Current wind turbines and electric vehicles rely on “permanent magnets,” which use expensive and rare minerals. The new motor would eliminate the need for rare-earth materials, instead relying on electromagnetism to spin and generate power – ultimately as much as 100 kilowatts.
The U.S. Army is looking for an energy source that’s light, powerful and durable enough to power its new exoskeleton for special-forces troops, dubbed the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, or TALOS. The helmet and vest on display at the ARPA-E booth Tuesday were “mock-ups,” a booth worker there said, designed to show “how little” current body-armor protects. The TALOS system, if ultimately successful, would protect far more of a soldier’s body, but it’s also much heavier. “When you have that armor, you need an exoskeleton to carry it, and so you need something to power it,” the worker said.
BMW’s electric vehicle, the i3, drew plenty of gawkers on the showcase floor – perhaps as much for its suicide doors and eye-catching interior as for its actual green energy capabilities. The five-door car has a standard range of 80 to 100 miles per charge, but with an upgrade, can reach about 180 miles, the news website DailyFinance.com reported. It’s set to go on sale in the United States in May, with a base price of about $41,000.