The search for cleaner, more efficient energy sources is nothing new. But The New York Times reports that the United States Department of Energy is investing $400 million into what it calls “the search for miracles.” The government hopes to turn garbage into energy and trees into liquid fuel. In doing so, experts hope to replace gasoline as the primary source of energy for American transportation.

This new quest for clean energy is part of the newly dubbed Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E ). Modeled after the U.S. military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, this agency would provide much-needed funds to companies attempting to make huge leaps into energy technologies. The projects ARPA-E is looking to support sounds like something one might hear about at a sci-fi convention. As one department official called the new projects, it is “real science fiction stuff.”

Batteries are being taken to task by ARPA-E. In 1749, Benjamin Franklin first coined the term “battery” when he described a set of linked capacitors used for his electrical experiments. Now, scientists are considering the same idea behind Franklin’s invention to create extremely efficient nanotubes.

Nanotubes would be grown with tube walls only 12 atoms thick, which would make them light and efficient. As they would have a physical nature, charged particles could attach and detached instantly. This leaves a light, powerful battery – along the same lines as Benjamin Franklin’s original glass bottles of energy, but infinitely more efficient.

Another program would consider how to harness the vast amount of energy stores in plants and trees. As the NY Times reports, plants and trees store more energy that what is consumed by transportation vehicles – all the while scrubbing the air clean of carbon dioxide. They do so by making sugars that contain energy called cellulose. Cellulose makes up the structure of the primary cell wall of green plants and is the most common organic compound on Earth.

But scientists have yet to figure out an efficient way to break down cellulose to harness its energy. Eric Toone oversees biofuels for the Energy Department. As he explained to the NY Times, “Cotton is pure cellulose. When you take your cotton shirt and put it in a washing machine, it still comes out as a cotton shirt.” Scientists have tried various ways to turn cellulose into energy but have yet to come up with a viable solution. A Massachusetts start-up, Agrivida, recently received $4.6 million to develop plants that ingest their own cellulose and leave behind a mix of sugars that could be converted into biofuels.

Hopes are that the government’s attention to these innovative new energy sources may eventually draw private capital for production.

For further reading: