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Meet America’s Next Top Energy Innovators

These companies are working on better batteries, engines that guzzle less gas, and materials to make more fuel-efficient cars.

At the cutting edge of energy technology, batteries are a big deal. Although innovators are constantly tweaking, slowly increasing the efficiency of solar panels and redesigning wind turbine blades, technologies for creating clean energy generally work well. The problem is that they don’t work all the time. And that means that in order to transition the country away from oil and coal, the energy industry is going to need bigger, better, and cheaper batteries.

That's why at this week's Energy Innovation Summit convened by the Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy, participants are showcasing high-energy lithium batteries, zinc-manganese dioxide batteries, and soluble lead flow batteries, alongside dozens of other energy storage, carbon capture, building efficiency, and biofuel technologies. Although Congress has been reluctant to fund ARPA-E at the levels the White House and business leaders like Bill Gates think the agency deserves, it’s managed to push forward clean-energy technology. Just last weekend, Envia Systems, an ARPA-E grant recipient, announced it had succeeded in making a rechargeable battery that would cut the cost of an electric car battery by 45 percent.

On Monday, the first day of the summit’s technology showcase, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu called special attention to three companies for winning the department’s America’s Next Top Energy Innovator contest, which used online voting and department experts to pick three companies whose energy work stood out. These companies are working not just on batteries, but on creating lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles. The sooner companies like these can start selling their products widely, the sooner the country will be able to get off dirty fuel, stop worrying about the price of oil, and help decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

Vorbeck Materials: Better batteries

Graphene, the molecule-thick material at the center of Vorbeck’s work, is amazing. It’s better at transmitting electricity than copper, and it’s stronger than any material ever tested. The scientists who isolated graphene won the Nobel Prize in 2010 for their work, and it has a panoply of potential uses. Vorbeck is using it in conductive ink—which can be used to print out the electronic components of devices like smart cards—and a more conductive, stiffer rubber.

But the application of graphene that’s most exciting for energy users is in batteries. Vorbeck says its rechargeable batteries can cut the charge time for cell phone batteries to under 10 minutes, for instance. And in an electric vehicle, these batteries could quadruple a car’s range from 100 to 400 miles. That’s the difference between a car that’s serviceable for daily use and one that can handle longer trips.

Umpqua Energy: More efficient engines

Although electric vehicles can help reduce the massive amount of energy Americans use for transportation (28 percent of the country’s total), even the most optimistic clean energy advocates don’t see everyone tooling around in Nissan Leaf in the near future. Most people will simply be driving more fuel-efficient cars.

Umpqua Energy wants to help make that happen. The company’s EVOPAC technology can increase gas mileage by 40 percent. The “clean burn” technique it uses, though, can spew nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas. So the company pairs the engine technology with a tailpipe filter, cutely called DeNOx, which splits up the harmful nitrous oxide into innocuous nitrogen and oxygen.

Iowa Powder Atomization Technologies: Lighter vehicles

IPAT calls titanium “one of our country’s most strategic metals.” Named after the titans of Greek mythology’s, it’s incredibly strong. It’s also lightweight, which means that when it replaces a heavier metal like steel in a car or an airplane, it takes less fuel to move that vehicle, saving energy and money.

One of the problems with titanium, though, is that it’s difficult to mold. IPAT’s technology creates a titanium powder, which can be used to manufacture titanium parts with less wasted energy and materials.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user workie

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