ARPA-E: If you can’t take the heat, just BEETIT

In this four-part series, we are examining the environmental government research agency ARPA-E and how its work intersects with the interests of the commercial real estate sector. We began with a high-level look at ARPA-E as an agency before delving into three specific programs that relate to building efficiency: SHIELD, DELTA, and BEETIT. These programs coordinate a constellation of long-shot research projects related to window-pane insulation, heating and cooling localization, and HVAC efficiency, respectively.

Check out part one, America’s Green Innovation Engine; part two, Designing a SHIELD for Single-Pane Windows; part three,  Managing Building Heat DELTAs; and don’t forget to sign up for our weekly newsletter!

Of all the electricity consumed in the U.S., about 72 percent goes to residential and commercial buildings. A sizeable portion of that energy – roughly 5 percent – is accounted for by space cooling and air conditioning.

Five percent may sound small – though, at almost 200 terawatts, it certainly isn’t – but current cooling technology’s reliance on potent greenhouse gasses makes it a priority for environmentally conscious policy makers and scientists. These refrigerants trap heat in the atmosphere on a per-ton basis that is several orders of magnitude greater than carbon dioxide.

ARPA-E’s BEETIT program is short for Building Energy Efficiency Through Innovative Thermodevices, and in addition to having perhaps the agency’s best acronym yet, the program aims to improve cooling devices’ energy efficiency and cut their reliance on GHG refrigerants. If successful, the program estimates that it could avert 10-20 percent of global warming by midway through the century. In the short term, the technologies invented under the program’s auspices could improve building efficiency, creating savings for building owners and bolstering the economy.

Of the three programs that we looked at, BEETIT was the oldest. It was formed in the early days of ARPA-E, and the majority of its projects have been completed and either shut down or moved on to the next step in the march toward commercialization. This made it a nice point to end on and to discuss the future of ARPA-E as an agency.


NEAT Solutions

Dr. Uttam Ghoshal and his team at Sheetak worked on BEETIT project from late 2010 to mid-2015. Their solution was dubbed Non-Equilibrium Asymmetric Thermoelectric devices, or NEAT for short. It’s technical details are complicated and potentially above this writer’s paygrade, but they describe a solid state cooling system that uses an electric current passing through the junction of two different conducting materials to affect temperatures. 

NEAT devices are exciting because they use no polluting refrigerants and have the potential to be a lot more energy efficient than current cooling systems. Sheetak’s solution is early in its lifecycle, but Ghoshal explained that they have already found some commercial success working with Haier and Whirlpool on refrigeration. This success has allowed the team to continue further improving their product and adapting it to new markets. Someday, they could be cooling large commercial buildings noiselessly, efficiently, and without releasing climate-altering chemicals into the environment.

As an early project of the now eight-year-old agency, Ghoshal’s team experienced some of ARPA-E’s growing pains. In particular, he described a difficult transition from working under the agency to finding a niche in the real world. ARPA-E has since worked to develop more partnerships with private organizations and branches of the government that support applied research, but Ghoshal’s comments bear mention because, if a bit paradoxically, they help to illustrate the need for the organization.

“This was the early years of ARPA-E, and they helped us in getting in contact with venture capital firms,” Ghoshal told Aquicore. “Things evolved in a different way, though, because the VCs would have liked more dramatic advances; they look at white goods industries like refrigerators and air conditioners as a stagnant industry. It’s very hard to convince them that you can dramatically change it overnight.”

Despite the venture capital world’s reputation for innovation, hard science and blue sky research in particular often have a hard time finding funding from the sector. The issue, per economist Mariana Mazzucato writing for The Economist, is that venture capital funds are focused on making a profitable “exit” within three to five years. Innovative research, she claims, takes significantly longer to bear fruit – often 15 to 20 years, or longer.

This isn’t a criticism of VC firms, per se. Impatience and a laser-focus on the bottom line are rational attitudes for a private company to take. It does show the need, though, for a public sector that is committed to supporting the riskier and slower projects that the private sector doesn’t have an appetite for. In that light, it isn’t surprising that Ghoshal’s team’s NEAT devices, which could eventually make remarkable advances in cooling, but that is still primarily in development seven years after the program’s inception, had difficulty finding ongoing capital.


A Cold Snap

Under Dr. Ichiro Takeuchi, a University of Maryland team is working on another BEETIT project. This one uses a property called thermoelastic cooling to the same end as Dr. Ghoshal’s team: to eliminate the need for synthetic refrigerants and to increase energy efficiency.

To dramatically simplify, the system takes advantage of a property of metals that causes them to alternately absorb and release heat when bent or allowed to snap back. By cycling through the process and controlling the flow of air, indoor air can be cooled and its heat funneled into the external environment.

Approximately seven years on, the project continues to face challenges but has recently demonstrated a working 400-watt cooling system based on the design. An important breakthrough came when the team was able to demonstrate an elastic metal alloy that could stand up to enough flexing cycles to last for a period of time comparable to solutions currently on the market. Now, they are working to alter the material so that it can perform the same function with less force applied to bend it. This is research into what is basically a completely new direction, and you can hear Takeuchi’s excitement.

“When we first started doing the ARPA-E project and we filed the patents, we realized that … there is an opportunity to potentially commercialize something that has never been pursued by anybody,” Takeuchi told Aquicore.

One of the points that Takeuchi stressed was how impressed he was with the agency’s focus on getting researchers to think about commercial constraints early on. He explained that often, because of the long timeframes involved with bringing projects to market, scientists lose sight of the real-world applications of their work. ARPA-E’s insistence that researchers keep in mind questions of cost, competition, and the contacts necessary for commercial success was sometimes stressful, but Takeuchi says that he now finds himself applying the same questions to his other, non-ARPA-E affiliated projects.

“It’s completely unique. It doesn’t begin to exist [in other countries],” said Takeuchi. “You know, Japan is another very tech-oriented country, but they don’t have anything like that. They were shocked and surprised to hear that every step of the way we’re asked, for example, how many jobs we created; it speaks to the background mentality of the program. So it was driven to create jobs, it was driven to commercialize completely radical ideas.”


The Future of ARPA-E

Takeuchi, alongside many of the other researchers that we spoke to throughout this series, asked that we mention ARPA-E’s uncertain future. In the Trump administration’s March 16 budget proposal, which is non-binding but sets out the administration’s priorities, ARPA-E was singled out for elimination among the $3 billion in cuts to the Department of Energy. Virtually every scientist we spoke to saw this move as deeply shortsighted.

At roughly $300 million per year, ARPA-E makes up less than one-hundredth of one percent of the federal budget. Put another way, ARPA-E’s annual budget is just about one dollar per U.S. citizen, and yet the scientific community believes that the agency has a disproportionately positive effect on American innovation. This has been made clear in our conversations with ARPA-E researchers and in numerous writings by concerned scientists and policymakers across the political spectrum.

At the time of this article’s writing, Congress has just passed a stopgap measure that allows them until May 5 to reach an agreement on the federal budget. Retaining ARPA-E could only be beneficial to America’s future as a leader in clean energy and innovation.

[Update: A bipartisan compromise reached in Congress extended funding for the federal government until Sept. 30. It appropriated funding roughly along the same lines as the 2016 budget and gave ARPA-E a 5 percent budget increase. Congress will have to weigh the budget again, including ARPA-E, in September.]

Check out part one, America’s Green Innovation Engine; part two, Designing a SHIELD for Single-Pane Windows; part three,  Managing Building Heat DELTAs; and don’t forget to sign up for our weekly newsletter!

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