Photographer: Akos Stiller/Bloomberg

Here Are the Energy Miracles Bill Gates Is Hoping For

U.S. energy futurists fire up their thinking turbines for a once-a-year brain fest.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates made news last week when he called for an “energy miracle” that would halt climate change and reduce the cost of energy. “I don’t mean something that’s impossible,” he wrote in his annual letter. Gates wants a miracle akin to the polio vaccine or the personal computer.

Hundreds of potential minor miracles are on display this week at the annual confab of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a part of the U.S. Department of Energy. The event features keynote speakers including Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska); Victor Abate, General Electric’s chief technology officer; and Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank.

Unlike the polio vaccine, which was developed in a lab, or early personal computers, famously assembled in a garage, even simple energy technologies may require things like rare-earth magnets, advanced chemical coatings, nanoscale catalysts, and the engineering know-how to put a million components together so that they work. Companies and institutions working on these things, the nuts and bolts of the energy revolution, will show up in force at the ARPA-E summit this week.

Here are three of the minor miracles included in the conference’s Energy Innovation Summit technology showcase:

The miracle of the power wardrobe

Putting on and taking off sweaters and jackets has been a chore for humans in temperate regions since people first slung animal pelts over their shoulders. The staff of Otherlab, an idea-driven engineering and computing company, call themselves “mischievous scientists, practical dreamers.” They’re developing, among other whiz-bang stuff, materials that change thickness and insulation depending on the ambient temperature. Smarter clothing could mean less heating and air conditioning. 

Otherlab's thermally adaptive textile.
Otherlab's thermally adaptive textile.
Source: Otherlab

Three universities are also expected to show off power-thread research this week. At Stanford, for example, scientists are developing clothing that’s transparent to infrared energy—meaning the body can radiate heat almost as if it were unclad. That’d be helpful in summer; for winter, they’re looking at clothing that contains metallic nanowire to help keep body heat in. 

For those comfortable in their current wardrobes, the University of Maryland and several partners are working on a “roving comforter” robot that follows individuals around and keeps them warm or cool.

The miracle of clean vehicles

QuickTake Cleaner Cars

Current Motor Co., an Ann Arbor, Mich., startup, has developed what it calls a “mini-fleet-in-a-box”—electric, cargo-ferrying motorcycles packaged in a portable box-slash-solar-charging-station. The bikes can reach speeds of 70 miles per hour and travel up to 50 miles per charge, and are built to carry either a driver and “substantial cargo” or two riders and less stuff, according to the company.

Current motorcycles in their portable charging station. 
Current motorcycles in their portable charging station. 
Source: Current Motor

The rechargeable motorbikes may be the showcase’s only concept that’s ready to imagine into a Mission: Impossible movie. Plenty of other gadgets and materials being developed may bring alternative vehicles closer to market. Ceramatec, an engineering company, has received more than $2 million from ARPA-E to develop a vehicle fuel cell that doesn’t heat up as much as current technology or require as much platinum.

The miracle of any technology with “ultra” in its title

A lab at the University of Colorado at Boulder spun out Solid Power in 2012 to develop a better, cheaper electric-car battery, which ARPA-E grants the techie title “ultrahigh-energy, safe and low-cost all solid-state rechargeable battery for electric vehicles.”

A microelectronic research group at Georgia Institute of Technology has established proof-of-concept for a powerful energy storage technology that can charge and empty faster than batteries. The group’s “ultrahigh-performance supercapacitor” takes advantage of the unusual properties of graphene, or molecular sheets of carbon, that are being investigated for many different potential uses.

Other “ultra”-named technologies might bring more efficient solar power, more sensitive battery monitors, and rare-earth metals production that uses much less energy.

Living through a miraculous time

Hundreds of labs and startups are trying to make energy miracles. Getting the technologies to work, scale up, and survive are the first steps. Gates’s critics, such as renewable-power investor Jigar Shah and liberal climate expert Joe Romm, have argued we already have the technology we need to clean up the energy that powers the economy—we just need to get on it. Maybe so. But it would also be cool to have rechargeable motorcycles that can roll right out the back of a truck.

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