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Energy 'breakthroughs' on horizon?

Arun Majumdar thinks the energy frontier poses the greatest of challenges and opportunities for America today, and much of that frontier is on the smart grid.

Majumdar, director of the Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, at ARPA-E's Innovation Summit in Washington, D.C., in late February, said the nation's $1 trillion grid is an aging machine, with the average age of transformers topping 42 years.

Many of the 180 projects his agency has funded with more than $520 million in awards since its launch two years ago will drive change to the grid, he said.

Majumdar will be one of the featured speakers at the EnergyBiz Leadership Forum in Washington, D.C., March 19-21. The Forum's theme this year is "Harnessing Disruption."

Majumdar said that one ARPA-E funded company, Cree Inc., is working on using silicon carbide transistors to create a 100-pound, suitcase-sized transformer that would do the work of today's 8,000 pound transformers. Cree calls its work central to an "intelligent power substation."

Another company, Codexis, Majumdar said, is exploring the use of a human enzyme that transports carbon dioxide in our cells to help revolutionize the chemistry and cost of capturing carbon dioxide in power plant smoke stacks.

University of Florida researchers are bio-engineering pine trees with the goal of producing a six-fold increase in the production of terpenes, which could bring the cost of bio-fuels to less than $3 a gallon.

University of California researchers are trying to alter tobacco leaves to improve on the manner in which algae produces oil.

Alternative fuels are important because it is harmful for the United States to continue to spend $1 billion a day to import foreign oil, Majumdar said.

"This is our time," he concluded. "Let us invent the future together."

At the EnergyBiz Leadership Forum, Majumdar will report on some of the most important disruptive technologies on the energy front. That disruption, proponents claim, could improve the quality of life, create millions of jobs and power the U.S. economy in this century. Majumdar will be the concluding speaker along with Bob Foster, the mayor of Long Beach, Calif. and a former utility industry executive, and Sen. Byron Dorgan, a leader on energy policy in Congress in recent years.

The EnergyBiz Leadership Forum takes place in Washington, D.C., March 19-21. Nine utility CEOs will present their views on the industry's disruptive forces. Eric Greitens, Navy Seal, business leader and philanthropist, and Sen. Byron Dorgan will join them. 

Martin Rosenberg is editor-in-chief of EnergyBiz magazine.

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