Department of Energy

Addressing the Sputniks of our Generation

September 30, 2010

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Earlier this week, I traveled to Boston to take part in Boston University’s Presidential Lecture on Clean Energy and Environmental Sustainability. The purpose of my discussion was to address technology innovations with fierce urgency.

To understand what I mean, we must take a quick look back to 1958. In response to the Soviet Union’s launch of its first satellite – Sputnik 1, the Department of Defense created DARPA to regain the country’s technological lead.

Today, we are faced with three similar “Sputnik-like” challenges in the energy sector:

  1. Energy security.
  2. Greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
  3. And again, the loss of U.S. technological lead.

The former two challenges are well known, but the third is equally dire. Here’s an example: the lithium-ion battery found in your laptop or digital camera was invented here in the U.S., but the current U.S. market share in lithium-ion batteries is a mere 1 percent, compared to 46 percent by Japan, 27 percent by Korea, and 25 percent by China. Numbers such as these demand a wake-up call; we must change course and do so with fierce urgency. The nation that successfully grows its economy with more efficient energy use, a clean domestic energy supply, and a smart energy infrastructure will lead the global economy of the 21st century.

The organization I’m a part of, the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) is tackling these Sputnik-like challenges by striving to remain on the cutting edge of research and technology innovations. This means funding a broad range of high-risk, high-reward technologies that marry science, engineering and technology. It also means developing a specific technological and economic goal and investing in multiple approaches to reach this goal, allowing the market to decide the winning approach.

We will measure long-term success by the U.S. market share of ARPA-E developed technologies as well as domestic and global sales, avoided greenhouse gas emissions, reduced oil imports, the creation of new technology/business or new industry ecosystem, and job creation.

These goals are not simply the mission of ARPA-E, they are also at the heart of U.S. national, economic, and environmental security.

Dr. Arun Majumdar is the Director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.