PopTech Salon recap: Four big ideas on the future of energy

By Garry Golden

On September  8, 2011 PopTech and partners convened some of the world’s leading thinkers in the energy industry at the Energy Disruptors: Transforming the System salon held at Thomson Reuters headquarters in New York City.

What follows are highlights from the Salon’s keynote speakers:

ARPA-E Director Arun Majumdar described the agency’s ‘pre-venture’ stage investments and portfolio approach to enabling disruption.  One of many disruptive ideas was the notion of renewable fuels produced in a way that is more efficient than traditional photosynthesis-based biofuels.  ARPA-E is investing in research and startup efforts to create non-photosynthetic microbes that live on electrons (not light) as a way to expand our options for ‘renewable’ energy beyond electricity from solar and wind to fuels that fit within the existing energy infrastructure.

Joint BioEnergy Institute CEO and UC Berkeley professor Jay Keasling (PopTech 2007) provided a roadmap for bioenergy that went beyond the debate about the shortcomings of corn-based ethanol. One of Keasling’s disruptive ideas was to ‘densify’ non-food plants and stover biomass (leaf and stalk waste byproducts) to increase the cost competitiveness of biofuels.  Using the principles of synthetic biology we can imagine a future where microbes produce designer biofuels specific to different end-uses from cars to jets.  Part of Keasling’s vision: replacing traditional petrochemical facilities with scalable microbial factories across the Midwest that are able to brew biofuels of the future.

GE’s Advanced Technology Leader in Sustainable Energy Johanna Wellington shared her lessons on the best way to lead idea generation and breakthrough research efforts that reduce the risk for business development and commercialization. One of her disruptive ideas was to develop substitutes for ‘critical materials’ that are used in cleantech products such as batteries, wind turbines, power electronics and fuel cells. She explained that GE is turning to nanostructured materials, nanotechnology-based materials design, to create alternatives based on more abundant mineral elements that can deliver the same breakthrough performance at a lower cost and without the fear of supply disruption in today’s critical materials landscape.

President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) Shirley Ann Jackson outlined her comprehensive approach to giving strategic focus and translational pathways for idea generation that could lead to disruptions in the energy industry.  One of her many ideas: looking 'back to the future' at the intersection of new geometries of nanostructured materials that might be used to capture and release ambient energy within homes and office buildings.  Research in this disruptive area of energy systems design is currently underway at CASE / Center for Architecture Science and Ecology in New York City, a partnership between (RPI) and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

Special thanks to our event partners: KAPSARCThomson Reuters, and Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business Center for Energy, Development, and the Global Environment.

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